The Senate Caves In Again to Bush on FISA

But the House shows a little moxie

The FISA Amendments Act of 2007 (S. 2248), an "updating" of the 30-year-old law that authorized a secret court to oversee intelligence operations by federal agencies, sailed through the "Democratically-controlled" Senate on Feb 12.

Intended to "modernize and streamline" provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, "and for other purposes" (italics added), the act includes a section authorizing warrantless wiretaps of foreign-to-foreign communications and retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that helped the administration to spy on Americans. The bill also states that the government will not need a warrant for foreign-to-American communications, with no privacy protections on the American end, and will allow the government to install monitoring stations in telephone and internet facilities inside the U.S., also without judicial review.

In effect, the statute provides retroactive immunity to government officials as completely as to the telecoms.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Democrat's narrow majority was diminished by the defections of a few conservatives like Lieberman and Salazar, but you'd be wrong. The vote wasn't even close.

Sixty-eight senators voted for the bill; only 29 said nay. To put it another way, 19 Democrats -- 40% of the Democratic delegation -- joined Lieberman and the Republicans in voting to gut the Constitution.

Three senators couldn't be bothered to vote at all. One was Lindsey Graham. No loss there. But the others were the two liberal champions who seek to be the leader of their party: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

It's no wonder that millions of American feel disenfranchised by the current system. In the absence of party discipline, there is no downside to lying about who you are or what you'll do once you're in office. Voters pull the lever for a Democrat and wind up with a senator or a representative allied with the GOP and supporting a corrupt, incompetent and fascistic president. Why wouldn't they vote for Ralph Nader the next time, or just stay home? It shouldn't be a shock that more people vote for American Idol than for president; at least you can count on the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Hicks to deliver as promised.

The problem with Washington is not that it is narrowly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Nor is Federalism the problem. The problem is that the government -- all branches -- is firmly and utterly in the hands of conservatives. Nothing is changed by dispatching someone to the District for no more compelling reason than that s/he labels self a Democrat. We have to start choosing people who actually will take on the military-industrial complex, engage in the fight against poverty, expand democratic government, protect the environment, and rebuild the country's tattered infrastructure, regardless of party. We have to stop letting conservatives use the Democratic Party to camouflage their dominance of policy. There are no liberals in the Republican congressional delegation; why should conservatives be allowed to hide out among the Democrats? Party labels are just another way of keeping us from figuring out what's really going on.

Instead of sucking up to right wingers in order to cop the choice corner suites in the Senate office buildings, the Democrats should toss traitors like Joe Lieberman out on their Dumbo-sized ears. What has been gained by taking "control" of the Senate, beyond winning for the Democrats a share of the responsibility for the failures of George W. Bush and of the conservative majority that truly controls the legislative agenda? We would have a far more responsive, effective and democratic government if our elected officials were organized along ideological instead of partisan political lines.

With the White House already lost to the center-right, liberals, progressives, peace advocates, environmentalists, labor activists and such can more effectively deploy their time, talent and legal tender to reorienting the Congress than worrying over who's going to be president. Not that there aren't reasons to choose among them, but McCain, Clinton and Obama are more alike than they are different: none of them is going to tackle the radical adjustment in priorities needed if this is to become a just and democratic country. There should be no rush to choose one over another without getting concrete policy commitments in return.

In the matter at hand, for example, here is the list of nominal Democrats who voted with the Republicans to give the president the added power he craves: Baucus (MT), Bayh (IN), Carper (DE), Casey (PA), Conrad (ND), Inouye (HI), Johnson (SD), Kohl (WI), Landrieu (LA), Lincoln (AR), McCaskill (MO), Mikulski (MD), Nelson (FL), Nelson (NE), Rockefeller (WV) -- the bill's sponsor, Salazar (CO), Pryor (AR), Webb (VA) and Whitehouse (D-RI). I'm not saying protecting your rights as citizens should be the only thing on your mind when you vote, but at least it ought to be a consideration.

Besides, many of these names -- Baucus, Casey, Conrad, Johnson, Kohl, Landrieu, the Nelson boys, Lincoln, Pryor, Rockefeller, Salazar -- come up over and over again as stalwart defenders of corporate interests and opponents of economic reform. Put a hand on your wallet and look around for a progressive alternative the next time they come conning for support in your precinct.

The list should give us pause in other ways. It turns out that a candidate's opposition to the war du jour may be an insufficient reason to endorse him if his objection to the conflict is that it has been mismanaged, the position of many corporatist Democrats, Jim Webb apparently among them. By the same token, it is hard to see what was gained by replacing the last liberal Republican, Lincoln Chafee, with the conservative Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse (another possible warning flag to keep in mind this particular election season: the Rhode Island Democrat's campaign slogan was "Change the Senate").

In 2006, the Democratic Senate and House election committees systematically supported conservatives against candidates who ran on such issues as peace and economic justice. With many more progressives in primary races this time than last, activists need to be on the alert for a reappearance of similar tactics in upcoming contests.

The news isn't all bad.

Although the president was at his fearmongering worst last week, in a rare demonstration of backbone, the leadership in the House, balking at shielding phone carriers from privacy lawsuits and at warrantless and unwarranted surveillance of American citizens by their government -- took a two-week Presidents' Day vacation without reauthorizing last summer's temporary domestic wiretapping law.

"By blocking this piece of legislation, our country is more in danger of an attack," Bush said of the House's presumption. "By not giving the professionals the tools they need, it's going to be a lot harder to do the job we need to be able to defend America."

The temporary provisions are set to expire at midnight tonight, but Democrats argued that the basic law will remain in effect and that the president wittingly manufactured the confrontation by threatening to veto a short-term extension that was intended to permit the Senate and House time to deliberate responsibly on revising FISA permanently. "He knows that the underlying 'intelligence' law and the power given to him in the Protect America Act give him sufficient authority to do all of the surveillance and collecting that he needs to do in order to protect the American people," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told The New York Times on Thursday.

In response to Bush's accusation that Democrats are imperiling the nation's security, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer accused the president of "fear mongering."

"After refusing to extend current law, the president repeated today his untenable and irresponsible claim that our national security will be jeopardized unless the House immediately rubber-stamps a Senate bill," Hoyer said. "In fact, a wide range of national security experts has made clear that the president and the intelligence community have all the tools they need to protect our nation."

"This is not about protecting Americans," added Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, head of the House Democratic Caucus, on Friday. "The president just wants to protect American telephone companies."

If the bill is so vital, some Democrats wondered, why not sign the measure without the telecoms' "Get Out of Jail Free" card and let the phone companies off the hook with separate legislation?

Whether the rare display of gumption by House leaders is evidence that the Democrats are ready at last to take on the worst excesses of the president remains to be seen. But so low are our expectations by now that it was gratifying to see them display even the faintest profile of courage, notwithstanding that to do it they had to get out of town.

Countdown Special Comment on FISA: President Bush Is A Liar And A Fascist by Keith Olberman (, 2008-02-14)
Putting the president above the law (International Herald Tribune, 2008-02-10)
Bush Says Congress Putting US in Danger (AP/NYTimes, 2008-02-15)

Update: House Democrats reject telecom amnesty, warrantless surveillance

The House approved a new FISA bill that denies retroactive immunity to lawbreaking telecoms and which refuses to grant most of the new powers for the President to spy on Americans without warrants. It passed comfortably, by a 213-197 margin. (, 2008-03-14)

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