The House Intelligence Committee's top Democrat disclosed late Tuesday that he is ready to accept a Republican-brokered deal to rewrite the nation's electronic surveillance laws, signaling that a long-running congressional impasse could soon be coming to an end.
House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes told CongressDaily that he is "fine" with language offered by Senate Intelligence ranking member Christopher (Kit) Bond and other Republicans to overhaul the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Notably, the GOP language, which was offered a day before the recent congressional recess, would leave it up to the secret FISA court to grant retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies that have helped the Bush administration conduct electronic surveillance on the communications of U.S. citizens without warrants.
About 40 civil lawsuits already have been filed against the companies. The administration, Bond and other Republicans had backed a Senate-passed FISA bill that would have shielded the telecom firms from the lawsuits upon enactment.
"It's about finding middle ground and we have middle ground," Reyes said of the compromise offered by Republicans. "It's not going to please everyone but let's get on with it."
Reyes said he believes enough Democrats will support the proposal to pass it in the House.
But he said House Majority Leader Hoyer told him that House Democratic leaders want to have the liability of the telecoms reviewed in federal district court as opposed to the FISA court.
A senior Reyes aide clarified his boss' positions by saying that while Reyes thinks Bond's proposal is a positive one, he remains supportive of Hoyer's efforts to improve on it.
A FISA reform bill passed by the House earlier this year would have had the cases heard in district court.
Efforts to obtain comment from Hoyer's office were unsuccessful at presstime and Reyes' assertion that the GOP language would pass the House could not be confirmed.
Public interest groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized the GOP language on the immunity issue, saying it does not empower the FISA court to determine if the administration or the telecom firms broke the law. They say the court review would be too limited to give plantiffs in the lawsuits a fair hearing.
On another issue, the proposed GOP compromise would require the administration to submit its procedures and certifications to the FISA court for review before surveillance could begin, except in exigent circumstances. This would apply to wiretaps involving the communications of a U.S. citizen inside the United States.
Republicans also have said they will accept, for the most part, language from House Democrats making FISA the exclusive means for conducting wiretaps to collect foreign intelligence. House Speaker Pelosi has said that having such language in a final FISA bill is her top priority.
And Republicans have agreed to accept a Democratic demand that the inspectors general of the intelligence agencies conduct audits of the terrorist surveillance program.
The House-passed FISA bill included a provision that would have established an independent commission to investigate the administration's warrantless wiretapping activities.
"We knew we weren't going to get everything, but we need to get this done," Reyes said.
This article appears in the June 7, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily.