After months of wrangling, delays and political posturing, the House today approved a bill that would rewrite the nation's electronic surveillance law, sending it to the Senate where it is expected to pass and eventually signed into law by President Bush. House lawmakers said the bill, which passed by a 293-129 vote, is not perfect but was the best compromise they could reach to revise the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. "This bill is a compromise, but in my opinion it is a compromise worth supporting," said Majority Leader Hoyer. Opposition to the bill mainly came from liberal Democrats. "This bill scares me to death," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., co-leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who sits on the House Intelligence Committee and heads the House Appropriations Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, called the bill "a fishing-expedition approach to intelligence collection." Republicans said the bill strikes a balance between giving the nation's intelligence community what it needs to protect the country while protecting the constitutional rights of U.S. residents. "It has been two years since Republicans began efforts to strengthen our nation's terrorist surveillance laws and nearly a year since the director of national intelligence first warned Congress that we were missing vital intelligence needed to protect the nation," said House Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra.
The bill would give telecommunications companies legal protections they and the White House sought from lawsuits stemming from their role in the Bush administration's warrantless electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The lawsuits would be dismissed if the companies received directives from the administration stating that the warrantless surveillance program was legal and authorized by the president. Critics said the lawsuits are certain to be dismissed because the companies received such directives. The battle between advocates and opponents of the bill turns to the Senate, which is expected to take it up early next week. While the Senate is now likely to approve it, several senators adamantly oppose it, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy and ranking member Arlen Specter. "I am opposed to the proposed legislation because it does not require a judicial determination that what the telephone companies have done in the past is constitutional," Specter said in a statement today.
But other key senators, such as Intelligence Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller and ranking member Christopher (Kit) Bond, who helped draft the bill, plan to vote for it. The bill's supporters have insisted that telecommunications companies should not be held liable for assisting the government with activity they were told was legal. On another front, the bill would require the administration to submit its surveillance procedures to the secret FISA court for approval before surveillance could begin, except in exigent, or emergency, circumstances. The bill's provisions would also expire at the end of 2012 -- a move intended to force Congress to revisit FISA.
This article appears in the June 21, 2008 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.