Sunday, February 17, 2008

Heretical thought of the day

Why is it so hard for Democrats to stand up against Bush on FISA legislation? Many senators have made the point that the FISA law as it existed prior to the passing of the Protect America Act last summer needs only minor fixes, most notably to allow warrantless tapping of calls outside the U.S. that pass through the U.S. In response to the pressure to pass new legislation before the expiration of the PAA, it's been easy to point out that the expanded wiretapping authority granted by the PAA does not expire until next summer.

So why the rush to roll over? Why did the Senate pass a bill that grants full telecom immunity and provides no meaningful oversight? Democrats don't seem to lack for effective messaging to insulate them against 'soft on terror' smears:
"Their true concern here is not national security," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. "Rather they want to protect the financial interests of telecommunications companies and avoid judicial scrutiny of their warrantless wiretapping program." (Courtesy of Daily Kos's redoubtable McJoan).

Nor is it difficult at this moment to stare down the President's fear-mongering about the consequences of allowing the PAA to expire. Here is Senator Ted Kennedy on Bush's latest ultimatum:

Think about what we’ve been hearing from the White House in this debate. The President has said that American lives will be sacrificed if Congress does not change FISA. But he has also said that he will veto any FISA bill that does not grant retroactive immunity. No immunity, no new FISA bill. So if we take the President at his word, he is willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies.
That's a pretty effective rejoinder. So why didn't more Democratic senators take this tack? It's not just a matter of not wanting to stick it to the telcos for acceding to Bush Administration demands for data, since the Senate rejected a proposal from Sens. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that would have made the government stand in as defendant in those suits.

Can the senators still be so afraid of Bush's 'soft on terror' smears? Or so beholden to telecom lobbying dollars? It would seem that rather than running for political cover, those opposed to expanding the executive branch power of surveillance would be able to make political hay out of the Bush Administration's lawlessness: PAA opponents have laid out hors d'oeuvre trays full of potent sound bites.

That's why I can't quite shake the suspicion that there may be more to the Dem senators' repeated rollovers than meets the eye. What do they fear might come out in litigation against the telecom companies? Or what surveillance powers demanded by the Administration do they fear not to grant, and why?

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