Just imagine if Illinois Senator Barack Obama had kept his primary-season pledge to take the lead in opposing efforts by the Bush administration to rewrite the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to protect the president and telecommunications corporations that cooperated with his illegal warrantless wiretapping schemes.
Obama could have stood on the floor of the US Senate Tuesday, claiming all the attention that is accorded the likely nominee of the Democratic party for president to leap over the spin doctors and speak directly to the American people about the need to defend our constitutionally-defined right to privacy.
Had Obama kept his commitment to join Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd in a filibuster to prevent an abusive “FISA Amendments Act” from being enacted, he could have appealed to the Democrats, Republicans and independents, the liberals and conservatives, who understand that this legislation is at odds not just with the Bill of Rights but every standard of corporate responsibility.
Obama might even have spoken as well and wisely as did Feingold, when he urged the Senate on Tuesday to embrace the Feingold-Dodd amendment to strip Title II of the FISA Amendments Act, which provides immunity to telecom companies that allegedly participated in the president’s illegal wiretapping program.
Here is what Feingold said:
Mr. President, I strongly support Senator Dodd’s amendment to strike the immunity provision from this bill, and I want to thank the Senator from Connecticut for his leadership on this issue. Both earlier this year when the Senate first considered FISA legislation and again this time around, he has demonstrated tremendous resolve on this issue, and I have been proud to work with him.
Now, Mr. President, some have tried to suggest that the bill before us will leave it up to the courts to decide whether or not to give retroactive immunity to the companies that allegedly participated in the president’s illegal wiretapping program. Make no mistake – this bill will result in immunity being granted, because it sets up a rigged process with only one possible outcome.
Under the terms of this bill, a federal district court would evaluate whether there is substantial evidence that a company received “a written request or directive … from the Attorney General or the head of an element of the intelligence community … indicating that the activity was authorized by the president and determined to be lawful.”
But, Mr. President, we already know from the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee that was issued last fall that the companies received exactly such a request or directive. That is already public information. So under the terms of this proposal, the court’s decision would be predetermined.
As a practical matter, that means that regardless of how much information the court is permitted to review, what standard of review is employed, how open the proceedings are, and what role the plaintiffs are permitted to play, the court will essentially be required to grant immunity under this bill.
Now, proponents will argue that the plaintiffs in the lawsuits against the companies can participate in briefing to the court. This is true, but they are not allowed access to any classified information. Talk about fighting with both hands tied behind your back. Mr. President, the administration has restricted information about this illegal wiretapping program so much that roughly 70 members of this chamber don’t even have access to the basic facts about what happened. So let’s not pretend that the plaintiffs will be able to participate in any meaningful way in these proceedings — in which Congress has made sure that their claims will be dismissed.
This result is extremely disappointing. It is entirely unnecessary and unjustified, and it will profoundly undermine the rule of law in this country. I cannot comprehend why Congress would take this action in the waning months of an administration that has consistently shown contempt for the rule of law – perhaps most notably in the illegal warrantless wiretapping program it set up in secret.
Mr. President, we hear people argue that telecom companies should not be penalized for allegedly taking part in this illegal program. What you don’t hear is that current law already provides immunity from lawsuits for companies that cooperate with the government’s request for assistance, as long as they receive either a court order or a certification from the Attorney General that no court order is needed and the request meets all statutory requirements. But if requests are not properly documented, FISA instructs the telephone companies to refuse the government’s request, and subjects them to liability if they instead decide to cooperate.
When Congress passed FISA three decades ago, in the wake of the extensive, well-documented wiretapping abuses of the 1960s and 1970s, it decided that, in the future, telephone companies should not simply assume that any government request for assistance to conduct electronic surveillance was appropriate. It was clear that some checks needed to be in place to prevent future abuses of this incredibly intrusive power – the power to listen in on people’s personal conversations.
At the same time, however, Congress did not want to saddle telephone companies with the responsibility of determining whether the government’s request for assistance was legitimate or not.
So Congress devised a system that would take the guesswork out of it completely. Under that system, which is still in place today, the companies’ legal obligations and liability depend entirely on whether the government has presented the company with a court order or a certification stating that certain basic requirements have been met. If the proper documentation is submitted, the company must cooperate with the request and is immune from liability. If the proper documentation has not been submitted, the company must refuse the government’s request, or be subject to possible liability in the courts.
This framework, which has been in place for 30 years, protects companies that comply with legitimate government requests while also protecting the privacy of Americans’ communications from illegitimate snooping.
Granting companies that allegedly cooperated with an illegal program the new form of retroactive immunity that is in this bill undermines the law that has been on the books for decades – a law that was designed to prevent exactly the type of abuses that allegedly occurred here.
Even worse, granting retroactive immunity under these circumstances will undermine any new laws that we pass regarding government surveillance. If we want companies to follow the law in the future, it sends a terrible message, and sets a terrible precedent, to give them a “get out of jail free” card for allegedly ignoring the law in the past.
Mr. President, just last week a key court decision on FISA undercut one of the most popular arguments in support of immunity — that we need to let the companies off the hook because the state secrets privilege prevents them from defending themselves in court. A federal court has now held that the state secrets privilege does not apply to claims brought under FISA. Rather, more specific evidentiary rules in FISA govern. Shouldn’t we at least let these cases proceed to see how this plays out, rather than trying to solve a problem that may not even exist?
And that’s not all. Mr. President, this immunity provision doesn’t just allow telephone companies off the hook. It also will make it that much harder to get to the core issue that I’ve been raising since December 2005, which is that the President broke the law and should be held accountable. When these lawsuits are dismissed, we will be that much further away from an independent judicial review of this illegal program.
On top of all this, we are considering granting immunity when roughly 70 members of the Senate still have not been briefed on the President’s wiretapping program. The vast majority of this body still does not even know what we are being asked to grant immunity for. Frankly, I have a hard time understanding how any Senator can vote against this amendment without this information.