Last Thursday night the House of Representatives met in a closed session to debate H.R. 3773, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. It passed the House on Friday by a vote of 213-197.
The bill is intended to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) to resolve the problems modern electronic communication poses for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other agencies which pursue international terrorist networks that seek to inflict harm upon the United States. It states that a "court order is not required for electronic surveillance directed at the acquisition of communication between persons [who] are not known to be U.S. citizens and are reasonably believed to be located outside the United States for collecting foreign intelligence information, whether or not the communication passes through the United States or the surveillance device is located within the United States." With regard to American citizens the bill provides specific procedures allowing Federal agencies to intercept such communication. The bill applies only to international communications.
Controversy surrounded the bill because Republicans wanted it to include retroactive immunity from prosecution for telecommunications companies which aided the Federal Government with its warrantless wiretapping program in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Last month the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 68-31 and included an immunity provision. But the House version passed on Friday does not include such a provision. Instead, the House version would allow people to sue telecommunications companies, which would have to present their case to a judge in a closed hearing without the plaintiffs present. Both President George W. Bush and Senate Democrats have stated that they would reject the House bill if it did not include retroactive immunity.
While I am skeptical of many of the Federal Government's programs and bureaucracies, September 11 was a genuine threat to American citizens, and under the circumstances the Government needed to discover immediately whether there were other attacks planned against us and ready to be executed. Furthermore, the Government relies upon the continued assistance and cooperation of telecommunications companies to disrupt and intercept communications among those who continue to seek our destruction. It is unfathomable that the House Majority Leadership now wants to open these companies to criminal prosecution.
Instead of passing reasonable legislation to modernize FISA and to provide our security agencies the tools they need to defeat those who want to harm us, the House Majority Leadership is playing fast and loose with American security in order to score a few cheap political points. If Senate Democrats and Republicans were able to agree on the legislation the House Majority Leadership should be able to as well. Twenty-one members of the so-called Blue Dog Democrats even wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) prior to the vote, urging her to support the Senate version of the legislation.
There is no excuse for the behavior of the House Majority Leadership other than the fact that they want something to take with them on the campaign trail during an election year. Oh yes, and they want to allow trial lawyers the freedom to file costly lawsuits against telecommunications companies. At least we know what the House Majority Leadership wants to protect - not American citizens but the pocketbooks of trial lawyers and other special-interest groups which would be involved in such frivolous lawsuits.
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