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July 10, 2008: FISA Amendment Act Signed into Law; Restores ‘Protect America Act’ Provisions, Grants Telecoms Immunity from Prosecution

President Bush signs the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA), a revamping and expansion of the original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978). The legislation passed the House by a sweeping 293 to 129 votes, with most Democratic Congressional leaders supporting it over the opposition of the more liberal and civil liberties-minded Democrats. Republicans were almost unanimously supportive of the bill. Though Democratic Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT) managed to delay the bill’s passage through the Senate, their attempt to modify the bill was thwarted by a 66-32 margin. (Dodd credits AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009) as one of the very few people to make the public aware of the illegal NSA wiretapping program, which the FISA amendment would protect. Without Klein, Dodd states, “this story might have remained secret for years and years, causing further erosion of our rights.”) Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, gave his qualified support to the bill, stating: “Given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as president, I will carefully monitor the program.” Obama had opposed an earlier Senate version that would have given “blanket immunity” to the telecommunications companies for their participation in the illegal NSA wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who organized Democratic support for the bill in the House, said that she supported the bill primarily because it rejects Bush’s argument that a wartime chief executive has the “inherent authority” to conduct some surveillance activity he considers necessary to fight terrorism. It restores the legal notion that the FISA law is the exclusive rule on government spying, she said, and added: “This is a democracy. It is not a monarchy.” Feingold, however, said that the bill granted “retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies that may have engaged in President Bush’s illegal wiretapping program.” The amendments restore many of the provisions of the expired Protect America Act (PAA—see August 5, 2007) that drastically modify the original FISA legislation and grant the government broad new surveillance powers. Like the PAA, the FAA grants “third parties” such as telecommunications firms immunity from prosecution for engaging in illegal surveillance of American citizens if they did so in partnership with government agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA). [Washington Post, 6/20/2008; CNN, 6/26/2008; US Senate, 7/9/2008; White House, 7/10/2008; Klein, 2009, pp. 95-97] Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) actually refused to honor a “hold” placed on the bill by Dodd, a highly unusual move. Klein will later note that Reid has in the past always honored holds placed on legislation by Republicans, even if Democrats were strongly supportive of the legislation being “held.” Klein will write that Pelosi crafted a “showpiece” FISA bill without the immunity provisions, garnering much praise for her from civil liberties organizations; however, Pelosi’s colleague House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) had secretly worked with the White House to craft a bill that preserved immunity for telecoms, and on June 10, Pelosi “rammed” that bill through the House. The final bill actually requires the judiciary to dismiss lawsuits brought against telecom firms if those firms can produce evidence that they had worked in collusion with the NSA. Feingold later observes that the final bill is not a “compromise, it is a capitulation.” [Klein, 2009, pp. 101-103] Klein will write that Democrats and Republicans have worked together to “unw[ind] one of the main reforms of the post-Watergate era and accepted the outrageous criminal rationalizations of [President] Nixon himself.” Klein will quote Nixon as saying, “If the president does it, that means it’s not illegal” (see April 6, 1977), and will say that is “the essence of the FISA ‘compromise’” and turned Congress into the White House’s “rubber stamp.… It is the twisted judicial logic of a dictatorship.” [Klein, 2009, pp. 107]

Entity Tags: Nancy Pelosi, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA Amendments Act of 2008, Christopher Dodd, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Mark Klein, Russell D. Feingold, Richard M. Nixon, Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer, National Security Agency, Protect America Act

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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