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Jayne Lyn Stahl Headshot

St. Veto's Day?

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February 15th, one day after a holiday traditionally reserved for lovers, and named for a martyred Roman saint, the newfangled prescription for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Protect America Act, is set to expire.

Just about every president, since George Washington, has been remembered for something. Abraham Lincoln, of course, for signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Whatever his reasons, it was a good thing. For Franklin D. Roosevelt, it's the New Deal. For John F. Kennedy, it's the Peace Corps. And, President George W. Bush's legacy may well be empowerment by veto, as well as passage of unprecedented legislation, the "Protect America Act," which will legitimize warrantless, and mostly arbitrary, governmental surveillance of telephone and Internet communications of U.S. citizens.

"Protect America," passed on August 5, was intended to be this Justice Department's remedy for what it views as an archaic FISA law. It not only authorizes intelligence agencies to snoop, collect data, and compromise consumer privacy legally, but it also contains a provision which grants "protection" from lawsuits that arise as a result of any assistance telecommunication companies give to the National Security Agency in defiance of consumer privacy laws. There are more than four dozen such lawsuits pending now. The Act was set to expire on February 15th.

Over the past six months, the House and the Senate have been working on amendments to the measure which will bar retroactive immunity from prosecution for telecoms that cooperated with the government after 9/11.

On Tuesday, the president again engaged his preemptive war on Congress by threatening to use the veto on any version of FISA reform that doesn't include what the administration regards as a legal shield for those companies that broke the law by turning over confidential customer records to the government.

Curious, don't you think, how much concern the White House has about providing a legal shield for telecoms that violate consumer confidentiality laws, but not for journalists, like James Risen of the New York Times, who face subpoena, and possible incarceration, for their efforts to shield, or protect, the identity of their sources? Curious, too, how hard this administration tries to cover its own covert operations while, at the same time, providing no protection for its own covert intelligence agents when, as in the case of Valerie Plame Wilson, outing that covert agent poses a palpable threat to anyone who, in future, dares to call into question a bold-faced governmental lie as her husband, Joseph Wilson, did.

Mr. Bush opted to exercise his presidential veto at least six times, over the past seven years, on everything from the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act to legislation, in November, that would have provided more funding for education, job training, and health programs. At the same time, he signed a bill which allocated more than $450 billion for the Pentagon, for fiscal year beginning in October, 2007, an increase of roughly $40 billion over 2006.

Apart from the obvious, this administration seems to think it has divine right of veto; this president's concept of the veto is not unlike Ronald Reagan's notion of detente, i.e. the threat is more potent than the thing itself.

And, to show you just how potent threats are, the White House, in a 12-page letter, called upon newly ordained Attorney General Michael Mukasey and National Intelligence director Mike McConnell to lobby Senate leaders to ensure that "U.S. intelligence agencies (have) the tools they need to protect the nation." (AP) Clearly, the First Amendment wasn't the only casualty of this administration's "war on terror," checks and balances have fallen by the wayside, too. Is it called autonomy when an attorney general joins forces with the director of an intelligence agency to strong-arm the legislative branch of government into cooperating, perhaps in much the same manner as some telecommunications were bullied into data mining, and eavesdropping on their customers?

The House has already stood firm, and opposed granting immunity, retroactive or otherwise, to lawbreakers. The partisan demographics of the Senate, however, make for a bigger fight, as well as for more fertile ground for Bush-appointee lobbyists.

"It is for Congress, not the courts, to make the public policy decision whether to grant liability protection to telecommunication companies who are being sued simply because they are alleged to have assisted the government in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks," quoth Mukasay and the head of the National Intelligence Agency. Surely the attorney general doesn't think the American people are stupid enough to believe that the telecoms are being sued for anything other than breaking the law that protects their privacy.

Mr. Mukasay's statement is, quite simply, an insult to the kind of intelligence we will need, as a country, if we are to survive the Bush jihad on our constitutional rights.

A vote, in the Senate, on the "reformed" surveillance bill, which still allows for warrantless eavesdropping, but which is amended to bar immunity, is imminent, and may be expected before the measure expires next Friday. If the president prevails, by power of veto, then not only will a dangerous precedent be set in terms of granting corporate America a get out of jail free card, but centuries from now, February 15th may be known as St. Veto's Day, a time of institutional and moral narcolepsy, when our civil liberties became martyrs for presidential power.