Playing Games With National Security
At midnight on Feb. 16, the hastily-passed Protect America Act (PAA) expired after the Bush administration and its supporters refused to support a 21-day extension of the PAA. House Democrats sought the extension in order to reconcile a Senate intelligence bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies who participated in the administration's warrantless wiretapping program after 9/11 with the House-approved RESTORE Act, which contains more civil liberties protections and no retroactive immunity. Angered that House Democrats didn't "blink" in the face of administration claims that "failure to pass" the Senate bill "would jeopardize the security of our citizens," President Bush and his allies in Congress have launched a daily fear-mongering campaign to pressure the House into passing the law. At the same time, congressional Republicans have refused to participate in negotiations between the House and Senate, and Bush has said that he will not compromise on the most contentious issue holding up the bill -- retroactive immunity for telecoms. Instead of negotiating, Bush plans to hammer away at Congress with misleading claims that America has "lost intelligence information" because of the law's lapse and the lack of immunity for telecoms.
'LOST INTELLIGENCE': Last Friday, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell and Attorney General Michael Mukasey sent a letter to House Intelligence Committee chair Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), claiming that "we have lost intelligence information this past week as a direct result of the uncertainty created by Congress' failure to act." Mukasey and McConnell claimed that private companies had "delayed or refused compliance" with administration "requests to initiate new surveillances of terrorist and other foreign intelligence targets." Hours after the letter was released, however, "administration officials told lawmakers that the final holdout among the companies had relented and agreed to fully participate in the surveillance program." Even so, in his radio address the next morning, Bush claimed that "the House's refusal to act is undermining our ability to get cooperation from private companies." In a Senate hearing yesterday, McConnell reluctantly admitted that White House officials were informed on "Friday night" about the developments, but Bush went ahead and aired his false attack in the radio address the next day anyway. In reality, "one lawyer in the telecommunications industry" who spoke to the New York Times said that "he had seen little practical effect on the industry's surveillance operations since the law expired."
FEAR-MONGERING ATTACK ADS: Since the expiration of the PAA, conservatives have launched a full-scale public relations battle to paint opponents of the Senate bill as a threat to national security. Last week, House Republicans launched a web ad modeled on the show 24, bellowing that "America is at risk," implying that a terrorist attack is imminent without the PAA. Last Friday, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and an affiliated 501(c)(4) group called Defense of Democracies ran ads in 15 congressional districts and 17 media markets that erroneously claim "the law that lets intelligence agencies intercept Al Qaeda communications expire[d]" while showing a picture of Osama Bin Laden. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies is nominally a nonpartisan think tank, but after the disingenuous ads aired, most of the liberals on the groups board of advisers quit. In a statement explaining her resignation from the group, political consultant Donna Brazile said she joined the organization because it was "committed to defending democratic values," but "due to the influence of their funders, in the last few years, FDD has morphed into a radical right wing organization that is doing the dirty work for the Bush Administration."
IT'S THE IMMUNITY, STUPID: In a fear-mongering op-ed for Investor's Business Daily this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) claims that House Democrats don't want necessary "updates" and "improvements" to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that take "take technological advances" since 1978 into account. This claim is false. In November, the House passed the RESTORE Act, which fixes the gaps in FISA, but doesn't include retroactive immunity for telecoms. As DNI McConnell admitted to NPR recently, "the real issue" is "liability protection for the private sector." But the administration is having difficulty making a compelling argument for immunity. Both the original PAA and the RESTORE Act include prospective immunity for telecommunications companies, which means companies that lawfully cooperate with the surveillance program in the future would be protected from lawsuits. In fact, even in the original FISA law, cooperation by telecoms is not optional, but required, and they have always had immunity if they obey the law. Asked last Friday to explain "the administration's argument that without this retroactive immunity, the telecoms would be reluctant in the future to cooperate" even though they have prospective immunity, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel was unable to give a straight answer. Unable to explain how retroactive immunity is necessary for ensuring future cooperation, President Bush has been reduced to arguing "it's not fair " to allow "class action lawsuits against private phone carriers and other companies that are believed to have helped us protect America."