Lawmakers Cut Deal on Eavesdropping Law
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Congress is ready to approve a bill that was negotiated in secrecy, at least lawmakers think the negotiations were secret. The measure would update the laws on electronic surveillance of Americans abroad and here in the United States. The bill also deals with eavesdropping being done now, without warrants, by the Bush administration. Civil liberties advocates say the legislation falls short, as NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: For more than a year, congressional Republicans in the White House had been pushing the Democrats in Congress to revise the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. They wanted fewer restrictions on monitoring communications between the U.S. and abroad, and they wanted blanket immunity for phone companies who've been sued for helping the Bush administration conduct domestic spying without the required approval of a FISA court.
Yesterday, GOP lawmakers seemed pleased with the deal they'd struck behind closed doors with Democrats. Here's Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
Representative PETE HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan): I think this bill walks a very, very fine line. It gives the intelligence community the tools that we believe that they need and that they believe that they need to keep America safe.
WELNA: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was noticeably less enthusiastic.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): It's a balanced bill. I could argue it either way.
WELNA: It was Majority Leader Steny Hoyer who did much of the House Democrats' negotiating on the new FISA bill. He says it's not as good as the bill the House passed last year that provided no immunity for the telecoms.
Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland): But it will accommodate the protection of civil liberties going forward. It will, I think, provide for much greater protection than the Senate bill provided for individuals, and it will provide for court review.
WELNA: That review is to be provided by a U.S. district court. If the telecom firms can show they received orders from the White House to cooperate in the warrantless wiretapping, the lawsuits against them will be dismissed. GOP lawmakers predict every pending lawsuit will be thrown out. That's why some Democrats say the court reviews are a fig leaf for what amounts to immunity.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy considers the court review called for in the FISA update a mere formality.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Some may think it's more of a formality, but I don't see where it allows us to find out who in the White House decided to break the law. That's all I want to find out. I'm not out to get the telephone companies. The telephone companies probably tried to help the country. I don't have a problem there, although a couple of them, of course, said they wouldn't break the law, but I'd like to know who in the White House said let's break the law.
WELNA: Kit Bon, who's the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, agrees on the point that the phone companies should not be punished for going along with what the Bush administration asked them to do.
Senator KIT BOND (Republican, Missouri): When the government tells you to do something, I think you all recognize that that is something that you need to do.
WELNA: But Caroline Fredrickson of the American Civil Liberties Union says there's a real danger in letting the telecoms off the hook.
Ms. CAROLINE FREDRICKSON (American Civil Liberties Union): I think we all know that when there are no penalties attached to laws, they're more likely to be violated. And in this case, the incentives are very great because the telecoms get huge government contracts. There's a lot of money at stake here, and for them, they're going to do what the president tells them to do unless there's somebody or some entity providing oversight, and that's the court system.
WELNA: Still, it appears no one really expects the court system will hold the phone companies responsible after the fact. David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol.
(Soundbite of Music)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.