Washington – House Democrats are hunkering down for a long siege with President Bush over his administration’s terrorist surveillance program.
Democrats are aiming to rein in the White House’s power to wiretap without a warrant and assert “state secrecy” in key court battles.
At the heart of the dispute now is whether to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies now facing lawsuits over their cooperation in warrantless surveillance.
The Bush administration argues that liability protection is crucial to national security. Facing multibillion-dollar class- action suits, telecommunications companies will be less willing to cooperate in antiterrorist surveillance, say top officials.
“Even prior to the expiration of the Protect America Act, we experienced significant difficulties in working with private sector companies because of the continued failure to provide liability protection for such companies,” said Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell in a Mar. 12 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
A Senate version of the bill, negotiated with the White House, includes retroactive immunity for telecoms. It passed by a bipartisan vote of 68 to 29 on Feb. 12.
The House bill proposes an alternative fix for telecom companies facing big lawsuits: to allow a judge to determine whether the executive branch’s claim of the state secrets privilege is legitimate. It passed by a partisan vote of 213 to 197, with all Republicans and 12 Democrats voting in opposition.
Representatives [Jerry] Nadler [(D) of New York], Thomas Petri (R) of Wisconsin, John Conyers (D) of Michigan, and William Delahunt (D) of Massachusetts introduced a bill last week that would require a judge to make an independent assessment of government claims of secrecy. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.
“We can protect civil liberties and protect the country,” says freshman Rep. Paul Hodes (D) of New Hampshire. “What we did with telecoms was sound policy.”