An invasion of privacy

Our view: Expanded wiretap powers should be rejected

July 09, 2008

Congress is poised to pass legislation this week that would push aside privacy rights guaranteed in the Constitution and set the stage for virtually unregulated eavesdropping of international telephone calls. The legislation would amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to allow the government to bypass a special court set up in 1978 to assess requests for wiretaps by simply declaring that the tap is needed for national security. Legislators should reject this unwarranted expansion of government powers.

Beyond opening the door to significant privacy invasions, the bill would provide retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the Bush administration's secret requests for wiretap assistance in the heated aftermath of 9/11. Only a few members of Congress have any idea just what assistance was provided.

All of this is too much for Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, who yesterday said he will vote to remove the immunity provision and against the final bill if that effort fails. As he rightly observed, "We are a nation of laws, and the president and attorney general deliberately ignored the law and bypassed the FISA court for years with their warrantless wiretap program." Unfortunately, presidential contenders John McCain and Barack Obama have said they will vote for what Mr. Obama called an "imperfect" bill.

The FISA legislation is the product of laborious bipartisan congressional negotiation in the face of continued insistence by President Bush that the bill's expanded powers are vital to the war on terror. Mr. Bush has offered no real evidence of a national security wiretap crisis. The FISA court has routinely approved more than 20,000 wiretap requests over the last 20 years with only a handful rejected. For years, this president has used the terror threat to bully his way past legitimate congressional questions on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to harsh interrogation of terror suspects.

Now, Congress is once again falling for his tired appeal, instead of voting to protect our freedoms.

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