The battle to protect Americans from warrantless wiretaps and hold telecommunications companies accountable is all but lost, Sen. Russ Feingold, a leading critic of President Bush’s likely illegal surveillance programs, said Monday.
The “farce” of a surveillance law deal heralded by House Democratic leaders last week could permanently hide evidence of an “impeachable offense” on the part of President Bush, the Wisconsin Democrat said.
Feingold spoke at the New America Foundation in Washington about the nation’s intelligence needs. He panned an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that quickly passed
in the House last week. The Senate is expected to follow suit this year, officially putting the Democratic-controlled Congress’s seal of approval on an administration backed gambit to essentially legalize Bush’s warrantless surveillance program while at the same time letting off the hook phone companies that critics say facilitated the contravention of current law.
“I do think this is a total farce with regard to the immunity [for telecommunications companies]. It basically guarantees the immunity,” Feingold said. “It doesn’t simply have the impact of potentially allowing telephone companies to break the law. It may prevent us from ever getting to the core issue … which is the president ran an illegal program that could’ve been an impeachable offense
House Democratic leaders heralded the bill as a “bipartisan compromise” because instead of giving blanket retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that facilitated the president’s warrantless wiretapping program, it would route the grants of immunity through a district court. As long as the companies could demonstrate to a judge that they were instructed to spy on Americans by the Bush administration they would be spared the trouble of litigating more than 40 pending lawsuits , even though they initiated the surveillance without legally required warrants.
“This is an astonishing giveaway,” Feingold said.
The FISA update passed the House Friday, less than 24 hours after it was released. The bill was crafted after negotiations among moderate Democrats, Republicans, the White House and telecommunications lobbyists. The Senate is expected to pass the bill this week, and Feingold sounded pessimistic about the chances to improve it, although he said he would work with other skeptical senators to try.