Telecom Immunity & Surveillance: Silence Confers Consent

by Laura Snedeker

As Washington works itself into a frenzy over the re-authorization of a controversial surveillance law, the Democrats have once again shown themselves to be willing accomplices in the Bush administration’s abuse of power.

At the center of the debate is the Protect America Act, first passed in August 2007, that permits the government to intercept communications between people in the United States and people in foreign countries without first obtaining a warrant. The act is a revision to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that set up a secret court to oversee domestic spying in terrorism or espionage cases. The most controversial change grants immunity to telecommunications companies that turned over phone records to the National Security Agency after September 11th.

Seventeen Democrats in the Senate joined the Republicans last week to vote down an amendment stripping the phone companies of their immunity. The Senate voted 68 to 29 approve the re-authorization of the act, which would have expired on Saturday (Feb. 16). The House of Representatives, unable to come to an agreement on the immunity provision, recessed at the end of the week without re-authorizing the bill.

Although most of the controversy is centered around the immunity issue, there is a much larger picture. House Democrats have said they will settle their differences with the Republicans when the House returns from its 12-day recess, indicating that there is little else to discuss. Yet whether the final bill contains the immunity provision or not, it will still expand the powers of the government immensely. No one has even asked whether a secret court that dispenses surveillance warrants is compatible with democracy; the FISA court’s right to exist is not only undisputed, it has been deemed insufficient.

At least the Senate vote forced many Democrats who have spoken out loudly against the Bush administration’s abuse of power to show their true priorities. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) voted against the immunity provision but did not make it to the final vote, while Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) refrained from voting on either the amendment or the bill itself.

Why could Obama not bring himself to vote against the bill, even if his vote made no difference in the outcome? It would not have been merely symbolic; it would have been a principled vote by a presidential candidate and one of the party’s most popular members. Obama has criticized Clinton repeatedly for her vote in favor of the Iraq War Resolution, forgetting that he was never faced with the same choice. When push came to shove, he could not take a stand against a bill that permits the government to eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) made the sensible choice when he voted for the immunity provision and for the overall bill. As the Republicans’ only viable choice for president, he does not have to concern himself with being perceived as too conservative. His decisive vote in favor of the bill only enhances his reputation as a leader who is strong on so-called “national security” issues.

The politicians, like McCain, who supported this bill, and who consistently allow the government to spy on Americans are as much to blame for the administration’s abuse of power as President Bush.

Neither Obama nor Clinton voted in favor of the bill, but their silence confers consent, and their attempt at neutrality is suspicious. Any politician who is neutral about the abuse of power is probably not opposed to abusing it.

(Political poster graphic © copyright The Project for the Old American Century, which allows the use of its material with the appropriate credit.)

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