“White House Victory.” The words have a surprising ring these days given how little capital the administration has left to spend. But these are exactly the words used to describe yesterday’s Senate vote to reauthorize FISA. Rather than rein in the executive branch’s expanding surveillance powers, the Senate rejected measures that would have protected civil liberties, and chose to grant immunity to telecom companies that had provided the government with data, perhaps illegally. More disturbing still, this vote was not even particularly contentious; it passed by a wide, 68 to 29, margin. What happened?
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), an opponent of broad surveillance powers, said “Unfortunately, those who are advocating this notion that you have to give up liberties to be more secure are apparently prevailing.”
Is it true that Senators are still too scared to stand up to the national security machine for fear that they will be branded as soft-on-terror? Yes, there has been some definite bullying going on. In his State of the Union address, President Bush said that if Congress didn’t act immediately to reauthorize FISA, “our ability to track terrorist threats would be weakened and our citizens will be in greater danger. Congress must ensure the flow of vital intelligence is not disrupted.” The message is clear: question the government’s use of power and you put Americans in danger. We’ve been hearing it for six years. And the message seems not to have lost its power over elected officials.
Still, I think there are other forces at play. This is a unique moment in which the politics of security and the politics of special interests intersect. Some political issues, like national security, are thought to be immune from the reach of special interests. But the moment FISA became not just an issue of domestic spying but also of telecom immunity, the legislation seemed clouded, like the majority of other issues before Congress, under a shadow of special interest money.
Take Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, whose support of the current FISA legislation was critical to its passage. He said that the legislation was “the right way to go, in terms of the security of the nation.” But it seems it was also the “right way to go” in terms of pleasing his contributors. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, he is one of the top Congressional recipient of telecom money. Other Senators who supported immunity were also on the list of top recipients, such as Mary Landrieu (D-LA).
The telecoms have good reason to want immunity AT&T and other telecoms face 40 lawsuits. And the government worries that without immunity, the telecoms, having learned that the executive sometimes asks for cooperation with legally questionable operations, won’t cooperate with future spying efforts.
To be fair, Chris Dodd, who introduced the amendment rejecting immunity, also received money from telecoms, about $10,000 last year. So there is no direct correlation between a vote on FISA and the money received from telecoms. But wouldn’t it be better if we could be sure that legislative decisions were made on the merits of the cases at hand, and not to please campaign contributors?
If we are going to restore checks and balances, Congress must be able to challenge the assumption that civil liberties and national security are in necessary tension. Unfortunately, when special interest money comes in to play, it’s hard to know for sure whose interests these Senators are thinking about.