FISA: Feints, Tricks and Political Games

By March 13, 2008Briefly Legal, Communications

The House is expected today to vote on the FISA Amendments Act, legislation that only forestalls the necessary extension of authority for surveillance of foreign, electronic communications by suspected terrorists. Sponsored by Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), the bill does not grant the retroactive immunity for telecom companies that is a key measure of a serious, effective bill versus one that actually hinders the pursuit of terrorist killers.

The Washington Times describes the recent developments that have led us to this sad stage, where some House members remain intent on attacking the private sector, whose legal cooperation is essential for effective intelligence gathering against America’s enemies. The Times notes recent comments by Reyes indicating that House leadership was looking for a graceful way out, agreeing to immunity provisions.

But the reaction from trial lawyers who stood to profit from lawsuits against telecommunications firms was decidedly negative and the left-wing blogosphere was downright apoplectic. Mr. Reyes appeared to have gone underground, resurfacing Tuesday with a one-paragraph statement, also signed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, denouncing the White House as obstructionist. Meanwhile, House Democrats leaked to the New York Times the outlines of a new proposal that denies retroactive immunity to the telecommunications firms. Rather than bar lawsuits against companies for doing their patriotic duty by helping the U.S. government prevent terrorist attacks, the Pelosi plan would ensure that they remain vulnerable to new litigation: House Democrats would create a bipartisan congressional commission with subpoena power to issue a report on U.S. terrorist surveillance programs. They would leave the issue of immunity to the federal courts — ensuring that it becomes the subject of protracted litigation that could go on for years.

And then it’s off for a two-week vacation.

Sir! We have new intelligence of an imminent attack!

Well, then, call out our top team to prevent it. Now!

Can’t, sir. They’re on vacation. It’s Easter break. Almost everyone’s gone.

Damn. Who’s left?

Well, we have some trial lawyers available. But there’s paperwork to fill out.

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