Sunday, February 17, 2008

Feeling Less Safe?

The Protect America Act expired yesterday, after the House of Representatives went on recess without passing a Senate-approved version of new amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

For those new to the story, Congress passed the PAA last summer after the Bush administration claimed that it needed new wiretapping authority to protect against terrorist threats. Because the PAA was intrusive on civil liberties, Congress included a sunset provision that made the act expire after six months, during which Congress hoped to work out a better version.

Intense wrangling over the better version developed, particularly with regard to the question of whether telecom companies should be immune from suit for complying with administration data request -- or, to put it less politely, for spying on their customers. The Senate said yes, but the House version of the bill hadn't included such immunity.

As usual, President Bush forecasts dire danger to U.S. security if the Congress doesn't give him all the surveillance power he wants. But for a change, the House refused to cave in to the President's fear mongering.

It's about time someone stood up to the President on this issue. I'm all for protecting America from terrorism, but civil liberties matter too, and the President can't expect to have everything his own way. His uncompromising approach is just as responsible for any security risk that we're now facing as any Democratic desires. Congress offered another temporary extension of the PAA while things got worked out, but the President refused.

With the PAA's authority expired, the administration will need to get judicial approval for wiretapping more often. Is that a major security hazard? I'm having trouble seeing it.

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