Early in his first term, the Bush administration asked the major telecom companies to let the government have all of their traffic about people's phone calls, foreign or American, without warrants or judges being involved. One, Qwest, said no, that would be illegal. All the others, apparently, said yes. We found out about this in 2005 & 2006.
AT&T, Verizon, etc., are in court to defend their illegal actions. They argue they're not responsible, the government is. This court case may be the only way we'll find out what exactly the Bush government was doing, what information they were collecting on people, and what legal debates they had about it.
Afraid of legal discovery and subpeonas and facing the issues in open court, the Bush administration is trying to get Congress to pass a law giving the telecom companies amnesty for their illegal spying. If Congress declares by fiat that the phone companies aren't responsible, the court has no role, and not only do AT&T and Verizon and the rest of them get off the hook for their willingness to build a police state, but the Bushies get to keep their secrets about it from us.
Minimal timeline/summary (leaving out some things):
- FISA, the law that allows the government to legally conduct surveillance of foreign communications under the oversight of judges but in secret, had a bug that needed to be fixed.
- Summer 2007: Congress passed the "Protect America Act" hastily, with little debate, under bullying from Bush. It fixed FISA's bug, but also temporarily legalized warrantless spying. Without knowing what exactly the warrantless spying program was, Congress said it was okay (although Constitutionally it probably is still illegal, that hasn't gone through the courts). But because it was so hasty, they made it only last six months... until now.
- December 2007: With last summer's legislation expiring soon, Congress picks up a new bill to extend it for longer. This bill adds something that wasn't in the original: amnesty for the telcos.
Senator Chris Dodd leads a filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, seeing the Senate's session about to end with other important legislation to get to, and no time to deal with a filibuster, withdraws the bill, to be picked up again after the new year. Temporary victory!
- January 2007: FISA amendments extension with telecom amensty reintroduced. Senator Feingold introduces a series of amendments to get rid of telecom amnesty, add judicial oversight back, and fix several other serious problems.
- Last week: A vote got called on the bill as-is, with no amendments. Senator Dodd threatens a filibuster. Cloture vote, needing 60 votes to break the filibuster, fails. What this means: all those amendments can now be debated and voted on before the whole bill comes to a vote again. Temporary victory!
- Today: The Senate is taking up the amendments, with Feingold/Dodd (the one to get rid of telecom amnesty) possibly voted on today. Two opponents of telecom amnesty, Obama and Clinton, can't afford to spend the day in the Senate because Super Tuesday is tomorrow and they need to campaign. Ouch.
Do you like having a system of checks and balances? Where the government has to obey the law, and where police have to show a judge they have a reason to spy on you?
Please please please call both of your Senators and Majority Leader Harry Reid today! Their offices are taking calls, and the only reason we won in December and last week is that the volume of calls turned a few Senators' votes. Due to an agreement between Reid and the Republicans, most of Russ Feingold's amendments only need 50 votes to pass - they agreed not to filibuster them in exchange for taking a few off the table. We can get 50 votes but it's not a sure thing.
P.S. Oh yeah, Super Tuesday is tomorrow. I hope you vote for Obama if you can, and that he wins. Maybe I'll have time to write another post about that. But too few people are posting about the FISA bill.
[Edit: Here's a list of the amendments Feingold has proposed. They're all good. Dodd-Feingold is the one to get rid of amnesty for phone companies. Feingold-Tester-Webb is the one that puts judges back in the wiretapping process. Ask your Senators to vote for all of Feingold's amendments. ]
[Edit: Republicans are using some annoying stalling tactics, pushing these amendments to later this week - which may be a good thing. ]