Democrats poised to compromise on spy powers

by Jessica Pupovac, AHN

Despite publicly denouncing the passage of a temporary spy bill last August and vowing to defeat it when it comes up for renewal next year, Democratic lawmakers now seem poised to meet the Bush administration halfway on the issue, with two new bills extending and expanding government spy powers to be introduced in coming days.

"They're nervous," Caroline Frederickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union said, after meeting with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill Monday. "There's a 'keep the majority' mentality, which is understandable."

The new Protect America Act allows federal intelligence agencies to monitor the communications of all foreign intelligence targets, including phone calls and e-mail to and from individuals in the United States, without a warrant. It was passed in the final hours of Congress' summer session, amidst stark warnings from the administration that 30-year old surveillance laws were too restrictive and left the U.S. vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Legislators hastily passed the temporary law under pressure, promising to revisit the issue within six months.

Shortly afterwards, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and other Democrats lamented the move, vowing to rollback the authorities.

Now, however, they are softening their stance.

On Tuesday, Democratic leaders in the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees are slated to introduce a bill, to be renegotiated in two years, which would retain the broadened spy powers and require agencies to submit their procedures to a secret national security court. The bill would also require quarterly audits of the surveillance activities by the Justice Department's inspector general.

Brendan Daly, a spokesperson for Pelosi, told the New York Times that the House version would give "the [National Security Agency] what it legitimately needs for national security but with far more limitations and protections than are in the Protect America Act."

A competing proposal in the Senate, to be introduced next week, mirrors the House concessions and goes a step further by granting retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that took part in the NSA's once-secret warantless wiretapping program.

President Bush and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell have actively pursued the immunity provision.

Not all Democrats, however, are on board. "The politics has trumped the substance, so far," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), head of the Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence. "The administration has played the fear card brilliantly."

The ACLU agrees. They are pushing for mandatory warrants for Americans' communications and are adamantly opposed to what they call a "get-out-of-jail-free card" for telecommunications companies. "The phone companies should be held accountable for their role in the administration's warrantless eavesdropping," the organization said in a statement.

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