Hanging up on wiretapping

It is time for Congress to end warrantless wiretapping.

When our country faced down the threat of the Soviet Union, it was a belief in governmental openness and in the principle that no person is above the law that were more valuable in undermining the Evil Empire than all the nuclear missiles buried beneath the North Dakota plains. It is disturbing to us, then, that our country seems to be taking a page from the Soviet playbook, telling its citizens that it must spy on them – for their own protection, of course.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration ignored the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – the one bulwark Americans have against government abuse of surveillance technology. Rather than request warrants from the FISA court to conduct surveillance on U.S. citizens, it simply went ahead and asked – illegally – for telecommunication companies to hand over access to their customers private telephone and internet records. With a few exceptions, the companies complied.

Now, as Congress negotiates updates to FISA, President Bush, with the aid of Senate Democrats, is angling to grant these companies complete retroactive immunity. He argues that these companies will refuse to work with the government in the future if they are held to account. While it’s understandable how these companies, in the wake of Sept. 11, may have made the now-obvious mistake of trusting this administration, the answers owed to the American people about how their civil liberties and privacy may have been violated trump that concern. If faced with a legal court order, we have no doubt these companies would cooperate. If retroactive immunity is granted, it’s likely we’ll never get the full story on how deep this administration’s domestic spying efforts went.

The House of Representatives have passed their own version of the bill, which makes necessary updates to FISA without closing the door on finding out what happened over the last eight years, and we hope that the Senate shows some backbone and refuses to be cowed into the President’s fear mongering. With indefinite detentions, secret CIA prisons and torture, the rule of law has taken some awful beatings over the last eight years. Here is a chance to move back into the sunlight.