Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Law? Law No More 

Many of you, we know, are well and truly geeked by the ongoing cage matches in the Democratic Thunderdomes of Texas, Ohio, Vermont, and Rhode Island, but we ask you not to be distracted (in the manner of the zombies from Land of the Dead, who lapsed into an instant stupor at the sight of fireworks) from a concurrent, and considerably less rousing, spectacle: the shameful rush of the House of Representatives toward a "compromise with," which is to say a "capitulation to," the White House on the crucial issue of telecom immunity. If you are not familiar with the issue -- and if you're not, what are you doing here? -- please take a moment to read "Why We Sued the Phone Company," by Studs Terkel, Quentin Young, Barbara Flynn Currie and James Montgomery, from yesterday's Chicago Tribune:
The truth is that telecoms do not need a special deal. These companies have immunity from lawsuits for turning over customer records to the government if they do so in conformity with existing law. But, in this instance, the telephone companies knowingly violated that law. If we give them a free pass this time, won't the telephone companies feel free to violate the laws protecting our privacy in the future?

The Bush administration and its supporters in Congress complain that these lawsuits are simply about money and enriching trial lawyers -- suggesting that the litigation should be stopped because of the potential damages that might be awarded in such lawsuits. This criticism ignores the fact that, according to the rules in the federal court, the only way that we could ensure that a federal judge could continue to explore previous violations if the companies simply changed their participation or the government changed or ended the program was to ask for minimal damages. We are not interested in recovering money for ourselves, nor is our counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. We, however, are committed to assuring that these giant companies are punished for violating the law and thus dissuaded from violating the law in the future.

More important, amnesty not only lets the companies off the hook without answering any questions, it assures that the American people will never learn about the breadth and extent of the lawless program.
This last bit is of course the crux of the issue: it's the White House, not the telecom industry, that is clamoring for retroactive immunity. Why? Because retroactive immunity for the President's accomplices ensures that the scope of the President's warrantless wiretapping program, and the extent of his own crimes, will never come to light.

The (nominal) Democrats in the House are already passing the Astroglide in anticipation of Thursday's vote, so it is a near-certainty that Mr. Bush will get the free pass he desires. Still, even a doomed stand is sometimes worth taking. If, as a matter of routine, you expect your elected representatives to uphold the rule of law, please remind them of that fact by clicking here or here.

(Thanks to our ever-lovin'est colleague A. Carol for a plethora of links.)

UPDATE: We are pleased to discover, belatedly, that our learned colleague Glenn Greenwald has written the article we have been hoping to see for some months now, about the controversy that surrounded FISA at its inception in the late seventies:
[O]pposition to FISA -- in many civil libertarian and even conservative circles -- was fierce, not on the ground that it imposed too many restrictions on Government eavesdropping but on the opposite ground: that FISA gave legal sanction to sweeping, excessive, unchecked government power to spy on Americans . . . .

Back then, the premise that unchecked presidential spying would lead to massive abuses -- as it did for decades -- was just a given, something beyond the realm of what could be reasonably debated. Now, only far Left partisans worry about such silly things . . . .

Back then -- with a relentless, ideologically extreme Evil Empire threatening our very existence and our freedoms -- GOP fear-mongering was brushed aside. The political establishment overwhelmingly concluded that warrantless eavesdropping presented intolerable dangers, and many believed that FISA's "safeguards" were actually woefully inadequate. Telecoms lobbied on behalf of their customers' privacy rights and against being drawn into government surveillance. Editorial boards were almost unanimously on the side of greater oversight on presidential spying.

That all seems so quaint. The mindset which back then defined the radical, pro-surveillance right-wing fringe has now become the sweet spot of our political establishment. The GOP fear-mongering that back then was laughed away today dominates our discourse and shapes our laws. The secret FISA court which back then was viewed even by some conservatives as an extreme threat to civil liberties is now the outermost liberal viewpoint, one that is about to be ejected altogether by the Democratic Congress from the mainstream spectrum. The political establishment today knows only one viewpoint: literally no limits are tolerable on the power of the loving, protective Surveillance State.

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