Feature

Bumpy ride for surveillance bill

Democratic leaders Wednesday withdrew a measure to strengthen oversight of anti-terrorist wiretapping in the face of lackluster support and a likely veto. Protecting civil liberties is important, said the Chicago Tribune, but the "overarching" c

What happened
Democratic leaders Wednesday withdrew a measure to strengthen oversight of anti-terrorist wiretapping in the face of lackluster support and a likely veto. The bill would have allowed unfettered surveillance of foreign terror suspects, but required special authorization if those targets were in contact with people in the U.S. Congress is trying to revise a temporary law that was passed in August but expires in February.

What the commentators said
The collapse of the Democrats’ bill was “a victory for President Bush,” said Jonathan Weisman and Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post (free registration). Democrats said strengthening the surveillance court would protect civil liberties, but the White House said the measure would have hampered anti-terrorism work. Now Congress and White House have reached an agreement on another version of the bill, granting immunity to telephone companies that assist the program—as Bush wanted.

The Democrats caved, said James Joyner in the blog Outside the Beltway, but this deal isn’t all that bad. “Whatever one’s views on the wisdom or even legality of the federal government conducting domestic surveillance without a warrant,” it would be “obviously absurd” to subject phone companies to lawsuits for complying with the government orders. “If someone should be subject to lawsuits, it’s the policy-makers who ordered the surveillance.”

“Making the current law permanent is more sensible than excessive tinkering,” said the Chicago Tribune in an editorial. More court oversight would be a good way to protect the privacy of “innocent Americans,” but the “overarching” need is flexibility to allow “real-time” surveillance of suspected terrorists. Instead of sinking into “partisan political jousts,” lawmakers should all agree to make “a good-faith effort to balance civil liberties against strong surveillance.”

“As the president asked: ‘Why change a good law?’" said Investor’s Business Daily in an editorial. The surveillance program has “helped foil numerous bomb plots,” and there is no reason to weaken it.

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