Feature

The eavesdropping bill: Compromise or capitulation?

The decision by House Democrats to give phone companies

What happenedDemocratic and Republican leaders in Congress reached a compromise over a foreign surveillance law. The legislation, which grants broad new eavesdropping powers, has been held up over the question of legal immunity for telephone companies that participated in President Bush’s warrantless domestic wiretap program after the Sept. 11 attacks. The bill effectively shields telecoms from all lawsuits. (The New York Times, free registration)

What the commentators saidThis isn’t a compromise, said Glenn Greenwald in Salon. It’s a craven capitulation to White House demands by House Democratic leaders. There are many “corrupt and repugnant” parts of this bill, but the “most repellent” is the new “full-scale, unconditional amnesty” for the law-breaking telecoms. Thanks to this bill, “the courts are required to dismiss” lawsuits uncovering their illegal eavesdropping, on the grounds that “the Leader told them to do it.”

The “crucial immunity” for telecoms is a “bright side” of this compromise, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. Without private phone companies’ continued “good faith” cooperation, U.S. spies can’t effectively “monitor terrorists.” The “steep price” is that a special federal court will have to approve the eavesdropping orders, putting some judge “in the middle of the wartime chain of command.”

Well, “what did the Democrats get in return” for their “disappointing” cave-in? said Josh Patashnik in The New Republic’s The Plank blog. The GOP concessions seem to be that the bill places some restrictions on the president’s “actual surveillance powers,” reiterates that “Bush doesn’t have the constitutional authority to simply ignore” federal surveillance law, and “sunsets at the end of 2012.” It’s “not a terrific bill,” but it’s probably “a good idea to get this off the table now,” before some wiretapping orders start expiring in August.

The bill will keep those last surveillance orders from expiring, said Ed Morrissey in the blog Hot Air. But let’s hope we never find out “how much intelligence got lost” since February, when House Democrats let the previous law expire. The Internet commentators “will scream about the Democratic collapse on this issue,” but the surveillance law “changes have long had bipartisan support.”

The February showdown was “a political victory” for Democrats, as well as civil liberties, said Timothy Lee at the libertarian Cato Institute’s Cato@Liberty blog. So their “apparent desire to capitulate now leaves me scratching my head.” Politically, and “on the merits,” they should have stuck to their guns: “yes to judicial oversight of domestic spying, no to retroactive immunity for lawbreaking telecom companies.”

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