That the United States Senate would even have to debate whether to uphold the rule of law is infuriating enough. But two weeks ago, the contrast in priorities became too much: as the Senate refused to address the tide of foreclosures impacting more than 8,000 people every day, it was poised and ready to provide immunity to giant corporations that may have broken the law.
So, I did what I felt I had to: I said no.
By blocking a vote on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the fight to stop retroactive immunity goes on -- for another week anyway. The Senate will take the bill up again this week as it returns from the July 4th recess.
Of course, such procedural jujitsu was merely the latest twist in a fight that has now spanned nearly a year. During that time, I have used every forum available to me -- from the Senate floor to the presidential campaign to town halls around the country -- to talk about the importance of the rule of law and why a seemingly obscure dispute between government and corporations in our legal system is critical to upholding it.
A brief overview: we learned after September 11, 2001 that giant telecom companies worked with this administration to compile Americans' private, domestic communications records into a database of enormous scale and scope. The Bush administration appears to have convinced those corporations to spy on Americans for five years, in secret and without a warrant.
That we know this happened is not because the government told us -- they say the matter is classified. And it is not because one of the telecoms told us. We may not have known any of this at all were it not for serious investigative journalists. And we wouldn't know how deep the problem really went without an Internet technician by the name of Mark Klein, a 22-year veteran of AT&T who one day at work found a switch that channeled Internet traffic culled from millions of living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and offices across the nation to a secret room operated by the National Security Agency. Mr. Klein was old enough to remember when a law was passed to prevent this sort of unchecked spying operation from happening:
FISA -- a law written back in 1978 in the wake of Watergate that ensured the government had both the tools it needed to defend the country and a process in place for judicial review to put checks on executive authority.
Most agree that this law needs to be modernized, as it has been many times over the years. But this time, the president is asking Congress to do something much more: to shield the telecoms from any judicial review of their actions. He wants Congress to declare spying without a warrant both constitutional and necessary to defend this country.
It is neither.
That is why I have done everything I can to stop retroactive immunity from being included in the FISA bill. As written, this bill does not say, "Trust the American people." It does not say, "Trust the courts and judges and juries to come to just decisions" about what happened at the telecoms. Rather, retroactive immunity sends this message:
"Trust me" -- a message that comes straight from the mouth of President Bush. I would never take "trust me" for an answer, not even in the best of times. Not even from a president on Mount Rushmore.
Besides, what exactly is the basis for that trust? Retroactive immunity may be a disgrace in itself, but it is merely the latest link in a long chain of abuses when it comes to contempt for the rule of law -- from the Justice Department basing its work on political calculations, to the shame of Abu Ghraib, to the passage of the Military Commissions Act, which sanctioned torture. The list goes on and on.
To many around the world, that is what America has become. Where Normandy, the Marshall Plan, and the Nuremberg trials invoked the image of America for previous generations, those coming of age today will now think of Guantanamo, waterboarding, and torture. People now have a basis upon which to ask whether the president serves the law or the law serves the president.
Did the telecoms break the law? I don't know.
But I am sure that if we pass retroactive immunity we'll never know. A handful of favored corporations will remain unchallenged. Their arguments will never be heard in a court of law. The truth behind this unprecedented domestic spying will never see light. And the cases will be closed forever.
I'm under no illusion that we will be able to keep this bill from the president's desk forever; two weeks ago, I was disappointed that we could only muster 15 votes out of the necessary 41 to block consideration of FISA.
But every second we can continue to raise this issue and hold this Administration's feet to the fire for its contempt for the rule of law these last seven years is another opportunity to keep asking:
When we undermine the rule of law, do we make our nation more secure -- or less?
Over the next few days, that's the question we'll be asking. But I think we already know the answer.