After years of outrage and empty promises to rein in the president's warrantless wiretapping program, the House of Representatives recently passed an unconstitutional bill to give the president even greater powers to spy on our phone calls and emails. The Senate is poised to do the same this week.
In attempting to save face, some congressional leaders are trying to paint the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 as a "compromise." But the truth is, what they've compromised is the Constitution and our rights.
The FISA Amendments Act gives the president broad new powers to spy on Americans' communications - even when they have no connection to terrorism. Every phone call or email coming into or out of the U.S. can be monitored with minimal to no court oversight.
The legislation also grants retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies that, for the past seven years, illegally helped the administration spy on our phone calls and emails. The companies simply have to produce a piece of paper we already know exists, resulting in immediate dismissal of the cases against them.
Many are calling the FISA Amendments Act a major victory for the Bush administration. Senate Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Christopher Bond (R-MO) told reporters, "I think the White House got a better deal than even they had hoped to get."
Clearly, the legislation is about more than listening to "terrorists abroad," since Americans' every phone call or email to friends, business associates and family members overseas can and presumably will be monitored by the government. This represents a fundamental shift in the notions of freedom and democracy that have defined our nation for well over 200 years. Americans will no longer have any expectation of privacy in our communications - leading many to be fearful about what they say and write so it is not misconstrued by some computer data mining program or overzealous government agent.
In granting immunity to the telecommunications companies, Congress will effectively close the door to any further public investigations of the president's warrantless wiretapping program. Active court cases are going to be thrown out, and Americans might never learn the full extent of the administration's violations of the Constitution and the rule of law.
A handful of senators, led by Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), plan to fight the legislation. While the ACLU supports their efforts to strip out the immunity provision, that vote should not be seen as the end-all. The final vote on passage of the legislation is the most critical. Senators should oppose the bill unless significant improvements are made to protect Americans' rights and ensure telecommunications companies are held accountable for their illegal activity.
No matter what happens, the next president must conduct an immediate investigation of the warrantless wiretapping program and release all documents relating to the legality of the NSA's monitoring of Americans' phone calls and emails. We deserve the truth about the abuses of the past so that we can prevent them from happening again. Our next president should lead this effort.
Members of Congress know that FISA already provides the government all the powers it needs to monitor terrorists and keep us safe. No president should have the power to spy on Americans in their own homes without a warrant. And just because the president says something is legal, that doesn't make it so.
Polls show that Americans are craving strong leaders willing to stand up for the Constitution and the rule of law. Senators must join their stalwart colleagues and either fix the bill or vote it down. Now is not the time to sacrifice our rights, nor is it the time to let telecommunications companies off the hook for breaking the law.