Surveillance Bill Compromise is possible

Posted: March 02, 2008

If President Bush wants to assign blame for the lapse of the nation's antiterror surveillance law, then he must also point to himself.

Instead, the president wants to make House Democrats the villains. Not once but twice last week, Bush tried to cast the majority party as the bad guys for their refusal to renew the law exactly according to his terms.

Trouble is, the president has been downplaying his complicity in the legislative standoff because of his own refusal to entertain a key compromise.

And he's sidestepping the irony that Democrats in Congress offered to extend for a month the same rules that Bush now says the nation must have to avoid risk.

Bush has been trumpeting the threat of terror attacks without the rules, contending al-Qaeda agents and their ilk will be able to talk to their co-conspirators without being detected by authorities.

Bush said Thursday that it's "dangerous, just dangerous" to go much longer without renewing the surveillance law.

But no ongoing investigation has been halted by the law's expiration, and agents can use other existing tools to launch new probes.

At issue is updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs wiretapping of terror suspects. The 30-year-old statute requires agents to get warrants for antiterror wiretaps, or soon after in emergencies.

It was the FISA rules that the Bush administration decided to circumvent just after the Sept. 11 attacks. On Bush's say-so, the National Security Agency launched a years-long program of intercepting e-mail and phone traffic to this country - all without seeking court oversight.

A six-month extension of a FISA renewal that was approved last summer gave agents a freer hand. Basically, it enshrined the troubling, warrantless spy tactics.

But Bush now wants Congress to also grant blanket immunity to the telecom companies from the 40-odd privacy lawsuits filed over their cooperation with the NSA's earlier spying in this country.

A Senate-approved version of a new surveillance law provides that immunity, but the House has balked at this extraordinary proposal.

The issue isn't whether the telecoms should be shielded in some way from massive damages. They should, inasmuch as the companies acted to cooperate with the government during a crisis.

They cooperated with the NSA in a time of great national fear.

So as a matter of fairness, Congress is right to look at workable measures such as having Washington assume the firms' liability in these cases.

After all, it was the government that knocked on the telecoms' doors at a time when it was difficult to refuse.

But a retroactive grant of complete immunity would prevent the courts from airing the facts about the NSA spy program.

Bush's claim - that unless telecoms are granted complete immunity, they won't cooperate in the future - is certainly a valid concern. But the president and congressional Republicans can easily resolve this standoff by dropping the scare tactics and agreeing to a compromise that respects the rule of law.

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