FISA has been missing from the front pages of the nation's newspapers for a while, but behind the scenes and on the editorial pages, the story is still very much alive. The Hill recently reported that Congressional Republicans are changing focus away from FISA and towards economic issues:
Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) is expected to announce Thursday that the House GOP floor emphasis will transition away from passing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and earmark reform to “stop the tax hike.”
Supporters of immunity for telecoms may have simply realized that there are more pressing issues for the country to address than protecting the President’s warrantless wiretapping program from judicial scrutiny. Or was all the chest pounding of weeks past, the dire claims of impending disaster, just empty manipulative rhetoric? Either way, it appears that the old fail-safe tactics of scaring the public into supporting expanded executive powers are no longer as reliable as they once were—although it won’t surprise us if the rhetoric ramps up again in late July or early August, a year after the Protect America Act passed.
Glenn Greenwald says it was ever thus:
…clearly, they have come to accept that they are not going to win the fight any time soon and they are not getting any real political traction from their scare-mongering campaign. Other than AT&T, Verizon, Fred Hiatt and Dick Cheney, there is not -- and there never was -- any constituency in the U.S. demanding new warrantless eavesdropping powers and telecom amnesty. And the ongoing disclosure of still-new secret surveillance programs, combined with increasing dishonesty from the likes of Michael Mukasey and Mike McConnell, only made the prospect of GOP success here that much more unlikely.
The editorial and opinion pages of small newspapers continue to reflect a widespread distaste for the idea of offering immunity to telecoms -- and not just in the "blue" states. Kansas City Star columnist Chriss Lokeman spoke out:
It's criminal how the administration used extraordinary renditions, warrantless searches and seizures, waterboarding, prolonged detainment and other methods to circumvent domestic and international laws. Its use of private telecom firms for state-sponsored terror against law-abiding citizens should have been met with criminal charges, not pleas to lawmakers for immunity from prosecution.
The list of wrongdoing seemed endless even before the release of the 2003 memo pointed to a greater role by the Justice Department in this anti-American extrajudicial enterprise known as the war on terror.
One-time presidential hopeful Ron Paul reminded readers of the Hawaii Reporter that creeping totalitarianism is a real threat:
The new FISA bill allows the federal government to compel many more types of companies and individuals to grant the government access to our communications without a warrant. The provisions in the legislation designed to protect Americans from warrantless surveillance are full of loopholes and ambiguities. There is no blanket prohibition against listening in on all American citizens without a warrant.
We have been told that this power to listen in on communications is legal and only targets terrorists. But if what these companies are being compelled to do is legal, why is it necessary to grant them immunity? If what they did in the past was legal and proper, why is it necessary to grant them retroactive immunity?
And the readers of small papers around the country have not been silent either. In Portland’s News Times a reader wrote:
As a people, we must stand up and demand proper oversight from our representatives in government. Both the U.S. House and Senate should say no to immunity from punishment for those companies' illegal actions. The telecoms that have participated in the illegal wiretapping need to be held responsible for their actions – they have broken the law and should not be let off the hook now.
Inaccuracies in an editorial about FISA by Rep. Dave Camp in the Saginaw News brought an excellent correction in the letters column:
No warrant is needed to conduct electronic surveillance of communications solely between foreign terrorists abroad. Only where the communications involve U.S. citizens is the warrant requirement applicable. Even then, the act specifically allows for the U.S. attorney general to file a warrant application within 72 hours after commencing surveillance.
Maybe one reason the public is unwilling to support immunity for telecoms is that allegations of wrongdoing just keep surfacing. Tom Devine from the Government Accountability Project wrote in the Buffalo News about Babak Pasdar, the technician for an unnamed wireless provider who has come forward with stories about a “Quantico Circuit” that he alleges gave the government unfettered access to customers' calling data.
When Pasdar insisted on basic controls, the corporate security director drove out to sternly inform him that he had never seen the Quantico Circuit. That nothing would change. That if he did not forget about it, someone else would be brought in who could.
Pasdar backed off but was haunted by the implications. In 2006 and 2007, he anonymously briefed congressional committees, whose follow-up queries were stonewalled. In late February he decided to go public, horrified by imminent House approval for Senate-passed retroactive telecom immunity.
Pasdar recently told his story on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now radio program:
…I’m taking some personal and professional risk in doing this, but I think it’s important that folks like myself speak out. It’s very important for us to not let this type of precedence be set, because once that’s set, it really has grave impact on the privacy of Americans, especially in an age where, you know, your credit card and your ATM card has a lot of information about your behavior and your location.
The unpopularity of letting telecoms off the hook for their role in the President’s illegal spying program couldn’t be more apparent. As Greenwald says, there is no constituency for expanded spying powers – but there is apparently quite a large constituency that will support politicians from either party who defend the Constitution and are willing to confront expansive claims of executive power.