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Wiretap showdown
The House let an electronic surveillance law lapse instead of passing the Senate
W
hat happened
The Protect America Act, which authorized electronic surveillance of communications between the U.S. and other countries without court warrants, expired over the weekend after Congress failed to reach agreement on a unified bill. The main sticking point was a measure included in the Senate bill, but not the House bill, that granted retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies who participated in the warrantless wire-tapping program before it was authorized by Congress. President Bush had pledged to veto another extension of the bill, and the House went on a week-long recess rather than put the Senate bill to a vote. (Reuters)

What the commentators said
The House Democrats have embarked on “a risky political course,” said Robert Novak in The Washington Post (free registration). Why go on break rather than at least “call President Bush’s bluff” on extending the bill? The “nation’s tort bar,” which is “the Democratic Party’s most important financial base,” opposes the telecom immunity, because its member lawyers are “vigorously” pursuing the telecom lawsuits. And given the choice, the Democrats decided that losing that lucrative support would “be more dangerous than losing the anti-terrorist issue to Republicans.”

Bush could have easily had his law without the telecom immunity, said Josh Patashnik in The New Republic’s The Plank blog. But he wasn’t willing to compromise on it—and not for the sake of the telecoms, but rather “to prevent the details of the wiretapping program from being scrutinized—even confidentially—in a lawsuit.” So come on, “if reforming FISA isn’t important enough for Bush to sacrifice immunity, then there’s no reason for Democrats to unilaterally give in.”

“Let's be clear,” said the New York Post in an editorial: Letting the law expire “will seriously hamper the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to monitor communications of America’s enemies.” And the Senate version had “a clear majority in the House,” if Speaker Nancy Pelosi had let it go to a vote. Her checklist of priorities, which puts “play politics” and “go on vacation” above “national security,” is “disgraceful.”

Everybody needs to relax, said USA Today in an editorial. The House and Senate “need time to negotiate their differences,” and “fear-mongering” about an increased terrorist threat is “worse than disingenuous.” The law involves “crucial decisions about civil liberties,” especially since history suggests that unchecked surveillance power usually spreads from national security threats to “political opponents, journalists, protesters, and other domestic annoyances.” We all want to vanquish the terrorists, “but there’s a legitimate debate over how much of Americans’ hard-won civil liberties it’s necessary to trade” in the battle.

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