The House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee both passed the RESTORE Act today, paving the way for a full House vote next week. The RESTORE Act is an attempt to restore civil liberties lost in August, when Congress hurriedly passed the horrible "Protect America Act." The RESTORE Act is a good step forward, although EFF remains deeply concerned about its embrace of so-called "blanket warrants," which eliminate the time-honored principle that law enforcement must have individualized suspicion of you before it can listen in on your calls or read your email messages.
EFF has been tracking this legislation as it has evolved, both because its language affects Americans' rights to be free from warrantless wiretapping, and because the Bush administration has been pushing from day one for the new law, and the one in the works in the Senate, to include retroactive immunity or amnesty for the telephone companies who chose to assist the government in illegal dragnet surveillance of ordinary Americans. The goal of this immunity is to derail lawsuits like the landmark case EFF brought on behalf of AT&T customers against the telecom giant for collaborating with the National Security Agency (NSA) in its massive, illegal program to wiretap and data-mine Americans' communications. These cases may be the only way to get a judicial determination about whether the ongoing, massive warrantless surveillance is legal and for putting a stop to it.
Today President Bush made his loyalties clear. He threatened to veto any bill that does not hand a give a free pass to the telephone companies for violating the privacy of their customers. It seems absurd for the President to threaten to use his greatest authority -- to willfully override the will of Congress -- in the service of shielding lawbreaking private companies from justice for breaking the law and violating your privacy.
The fight is not over. The RESTORE Act does not yet have immunity in it. But the pressure to add immunity will undoubtedly grow in the next days and weeks. Congress must hold the line and refuse to cave in to the Administration's demands. The telephone companies have a duty to protect the privacy of the millions of ordinary Americans who are their customers. The evidence that they have failed in that duty is very strong and deserves a full court hearing and decision. If these companies broke the law, they should be held accountable. It's that simple.
Equally important, though, is the need for judicial review of the President's claim that he is above the law and can surveil ordinary Americans at will. The cases against the telecom companies may be the country's best hope to test the Administration's extreme view of Executive power, and to allow the judiciary to determine whether we are truly a nation governed by laws or by men.