Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A disappointing decision

Rep. Jerry McNerney voted this week in favor of a bill updating FISA, the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act.

A McNerney statement last week said he voted for the legislation because it "updates our nation’s surveillance laws for the 21st century, considerably strengthening civil liberty protections and giving our intelligence community the tools to conduct surveillance of potential threats against our country."

From analysis that I've read, that's not inaccurate. At least this version of the bill clearly states that warrantless wiretapping — a favorite tool of the Bush administration — is expressly illegal when it comes to American citizens.

But the disturbing part of the law is the part dealing with telecommunications companies that turned their customers' confidential phone records over to the government just because the Bush administration said they should. (Note here, at least one major company, sensing that something was either fishy or downright illegal, said no.)

The White House wants complete immunity for the telecoms that broke the law, I'd guess to cover up its own mistakes and law-breaking in the War on Terror. Lawsuits against these companies are likely to reveal just what civil liberties were trodden on by the administration in its hunt for the terrorist bogeymen.

So it's a big deal for the rule of law that the companies — and their records — be subject to the public scrutiny of legal action.

As an answer, the new FISA bill requires that a judicial review must decide "substantial evidence" exists before granting a company lawsuit immunity from customers pissed that their information was illegally handed over to Big Brother.

Andy Stone, McNerney's spokesman, reminded me Tuesday that the congressman voted against an earlier bill that contained so-called blanket immunity.

But as a columnist for another local paper penned last weekend, "other language says the courts must decide solely on whether the Bush administration told the telecoms the spying was legal."

In other words: If the president said so, the immunity sticks.

That stinks.

Let's hope the Senate doesn't give in to the administration's desires.

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