In the darkly apprehensive time after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration reportedly launched a secret and warrantless wiretapping program that, the evidence suggests, included unconstitutional and illegal spying on American citizens.Having thus, apparently, persuaded giant telecommunications companies to break the law, the Bush administration now demands that they be protected from lawsuits filed by victims of unjustifiable privacy invasions.
As Congress strove to wrap up business and fly home this week, it appeared that Bush might once again prevail over the invertebrate wing of the Democratic Party.
It's no surprise that the phone companies shun accountability. With some justification, they might feel that they did what their president asked of them during a time of crisis. Why, they might ask, should they be punished?
Answer: Because some presidents' requests are wrong, legally and ethically. Buckling to such requests does not become virtuous because of the commander-in-chief's involvement. If the titans of industry choose to flout the law of the land, they shouldn't seek a get-out-jail card, let alone lobby the president for favorably unequal treatment under law.
The House of Representatives had previously passed a bill to extend the eavesdropping program, but the House declined to include the immunity provisions. President Bush has threatened to veto a bill without such immunity, so the Senate has been waffling.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has sponsored a bill that would grant immunity to the telecommunications giants and, even more gallingly, decline to subject the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" to court oversight in the case of Americans.
But some senators are more concerned about preserving the nation's core values than in curtsying to the president. Sens. Patrick Leahy, Russ Feingold, Christopher Dodd and others produced a more constitutionally friendly bill (with no special rights for telecom fatcats). Their tenacity and use of parliamentary maneuvers prompted Reid on Monday to pull his bill off of the table until after the holidays.
Good. May it never rise again.
Last summer, the Bush administration did extensive congressional arm-twisting just before Congress went on recess. As a result, Congress gave the White House what it wanted, a temporary law allowing warrantless wiretapping (which is, lest we forget, eavesdropping without court approval).
Those who have warmed to the idea of a monarchical presidency are undisturbed by such developments, and they'll no doubt be blasÃƒ© when the president resorts to his usual ham-handed tactics in January, before the interim bill expires.
Reid's kowtowing maneuvers, rightly rejected this week, should be similarly trounced next year. What hangs in the balance is nothing less than a portion of our constitutional rights.
Clint Talbott, for the editorial board
© 2007 Daily Camera and Boulder Publishing, LLC.