In a measure largely opposed by Hawai‘i legislators, the U.S. Senate passed a controversial “compromise” bill concerning the government’s electronic surveillance program yesterday in Washington, D.C.
The bill, unchanged since its June passage in the U.S. House of Representatives, passed in the Senate, 69-28, and is expected to be signed into law by President George W. Bush.
“This bill will help our intelligence professionals learn who the terrorists are talking to, what they’re saying, and what they’re planning,” Bush said, according to a prepared statement. “It will uphold our most solemn obligation as officials of the federal government to protect the American people.”
The new law amends 1978’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the primary legislation pertaining to electronic spying, to allow the government to listen to phone conversations and read e-mails between U.S. citizens and persons overseas without a court-approved warrant.
The American Civil Liberties Union announced its plan to challenge the law in court on the grounds that it violates the 4th Amendment’s guarantees of protection from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
“With today’s vote, the government has been given a green light to expand its power to spy on Americans and run roughshod over the Constitution,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero in a written statement.
“Americans should know that if this legislation is enacted and upheld, what they say on international phone calls or e-mails is no longer private,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, in the statement. “The government can listen in without having a specific reason to do so.”
Three of the four Hawai‘i representatives in Congress opposed the bill.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Mazie Hirono and Neil Abercrombie voted against its House passage last month, while Sen. Daniel Akaka was among 27 Democrats to dissent yesterday.
“I voted against this version of the bill because it fails to ensure that innocent Americans’ privacy rights are protected,” said Akaka, according to a press release.
However, eight-term Sen. Daniel K. Inouye joined 20 fellow Democrats and 47 Republicans in support of the measure.
“I voted for the FISA bill because it protects our freedoms and liberties, while at the same time provides our intelligence agencies with the capabilities and tools they require to protect us in the post-9/11 world,” Inouye states in a release.
Earlier in the day, the Hawai‘i senators clashed on proposed amendments to the bill dealing specifically with retroactive immunity from civil lawsuits for telecommunications companies that allegedly broke the law when they provided private customer information to the National Security Agency.
The first amendment, proposed by Chris Dodd, D-Conn., would have stripped the entire retroactive immunity clause from the bill.
The second, proposed by Arlen Specter, R-Penn., would have allowed a court to review the constitutionality of the spy programs before granting the retroactive immunity.
The third, proposed by Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., would have delayed the granting of retroactive immunity for 90 days while the Senate awaits the Inspector General’s report.
Republicans, joined by Inouye and others, were able to deny the changes favored by a majority of Democrats, including Akaka, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“(T)he telecom firms acted in good faith, and believed that the cooperation the administration sought was within the boundaries of our legal system,” Inouye said. “They should not be penalized for their willingness to assist in our common defense.”
Inouye’s stance on retroactive amnesty contrasts with the role he played as a member of the Senate Watergate Committee that investigated President Richard Nixon in the mid-1970s.
The committee rebuked Nixon’s belief that “if the president does it, it can’t be illegal” as an excuse for his administration’s crimes, including wiretapping. Its findings eventually led to the passage of FISA as well as to Nixon’s impeachment and resignation.
“We all agree we need to give our intelligence agencies tools to combat terrorism, but we must be careful to ensure that any new authority protects Americans’ privacy and civil liberties, and that we do not shield the (Bush) administration from accountability for conducting surveillance outside the law,” said Akaka.