In December of 2005, the New York Times revealed that, following the events of 9/11, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor and collect the e-mails and phone calls of American citizens without a warrant. This revelation was shocking because these actions violated both the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). FISA was passed by Congress in response to revelations that former President Nixon was using "national security" claims to spy on his enemies.
Democrats and some Republicans were outraged after learning about the president's program, and called for investigations. Yet for some lawmakers it now seems like that outrage has turned into submission.
Despite several hearings and congressional subpoenas, the Bush administration is still refusing to provide Congress with what it claims are the legal justifications for the warrantless wiretapping program, as well as basic facts such as how many Americans have had their phone calls and emails intercepted by the NSA.
Yet even in the face of White House stonewalling, this past summer Democratic leaders caved in and passed the so-called "Protect America Act," which legitimizes and greatly expands the president's warrantless wiretapping program.
The law expires in February, and lawmakers are considering new legislation. Bills being debated in both the House and Senate this week would continue to allow the administration to listen in on Americans' overseas calls and read our overseas emails without an individualized warrant - in violation of the Fourth Amendment and without needing a connection to terrorists. The bills would also allow for the massive collection of private communications without any prior court review and let a secret court to draft secret surveillance procedures.
To make matters worse, legislation being considered by the Senate would grant telecommunications companies amnesty for their role in the warrantless wiretapping program. At least one company, Qwest, refused to participate in the program because it believed the governments' request to be illegal.
Approximately 40 lawsuits have been filed by consumers against the telecoms and are now working their way through federal court. These suits charge that the telecoms, including AT&T, Sprint Nextel and Verizon, violated both the law and their customers' rights.
It is not Congress' role to interfere with active court proceedings, and customers who've had their rights violated should get their day in court. We'll also never learn the facts about the warrantless wiretapping program if the telecoms are let off the hook.
Congress is under no obligation to pass this bad legislation, and can easily let the Protect America Act expire. FISA already gives the government all of the tools it needs to spy on terrorists and keep us safe. Clearly, this is about expanding the government's ability to spy on innocent Americans who have no connections to terrorism.
Lawmakers should not expand the warrantless wiretapping program or give the telecoms amnesty before they even know the facts about the program and the extent of the lawbreaking. Although there have been improvements made to the bills the House and Senate will be debating next week, major changes must still be made before either bill meets the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.
American can be both safe and free. I can only hope that Congress doesn't let the White House bully it into surrendering our constitutional rights.