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Dodd Wins Battle in Spy Bill Standoff

Dodd Wins Battle in Spy Bill Standoff


By Matt Renner
t r u t h o u t | Report
http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/121807A.shtml

After a full day of debate on Monday, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) prevailed in his effort to halt an Intelligence Committee bill that included legal immunity for telecommunication companies that may have broken the law in cooperating with the Bush administration's warrantless spying programs.

Ten hours of deadlock was enough for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada), the Senate Majority Leader. After hearing repeated speeches on the issue, Reid announced he had decided to hold off further consideration of the bill and to move on to other matters.

"Today we have scored a victory for American civil liberties and sent a message to President Bush that we will not tolerate his abuse of power and veil of secrecy," Dodd said after Reid announced his decision to postpone the debate.

Dodd had threatened to stand and filibuster S.2248, a bill drafted by the Senate Intelligence Committee that would have changed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to make permanent greatly expanded executive branch spying powers and cutoff lawsuits against telecoms who were involved in spying.

Predictions that opponents of the bill would concede defeat were proved premature. The threatened filibuster was enough to put off consideration of any FISA update bill until January. The Senate faces multiple challenges in the days before the winter recess including spending packages for domestic programs and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With a handful of amendments to the FISA bill already on the table and others being considered, and with veteran Senators lining up with Dodd, the protracted fight will be saved for the next Congressional session.

Dodd said he remains committed to the fight and he plans to block any attempt to give immunity to telecom companies. "Over the coming weeks I will fight to build support for my amendment to strip immunity from the FISA legislation when the Senate once again considers this matter early next year. I will continue to use every parliamentary tool at my disposal to ensure that the Senate does not enact legal protections to shield from law suits those who violated the privacy rights of our citizens," Dodd said.

Senate rules allow a single Senator to stop proceedings and hold the floor in order to block a vote on pending legislation. This technique, called a filibuster, can only be stopped if 60 Senators vote to end debate. Because there were numerous amendments to be considered on the FISA bill, ending a determined filibuster would have been a long and drawn out process, and would have split an already fragile Democratic majority in the Senate.

A group of Democrats, supported Dodd, including Senators Barbara Boxer (California), Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Ron Wyden (Oregon), Edward Kennedy (Massachusetts) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio), who took turns slamming the Intelligence Committee version of the bill for failing to protect civil liberties and for letting telecoms off the hook for their potentially illegal cooperation with the Bush administration. These Senators faced opposition from Republicans and members of their own party, who argued the Intelligence Committee bill was a compromise bill with bipartisan support and telecom immunity was needed to ensure future cooperation with the government intelligence agencies.

The debate in Congress over spy powers and telecom immunity has been smoldering since the Democrats took control of both the House and Senate in January, flaring up time and again as information about the Bush administration's surveillance activities leaked out. Just before the summer recess, administration officials, including the Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, demanded Congress pass legislation to ease spying restrictions and grant the executive branch expanded powers. A controversial bill that accomplished the administration's goals, the Protect America Act, was rushed through Congress amid warnings of a terrorism threat aimed at Washington, DC. That bill is set to expire in February.

Both the Senate and House have set out to craft a spying bill that would update FISA while restoring checks and balances that were done away with by the Protect America Act. The Bush administration has said any FISA legislation passed must include retroactive immunity for telecoms that participated in past surveillance efforts.

Two separate bills were developed by Senate Committees, one from the Intelligence committee and one from the Judiciary committee. The Intelligence committee bill included retroactive immunity for telecoms. The bill from the Judiciary committee made significant alterations to the Intelligence committee bill, including provisions to strengthen Congressional and Judicial oversight of surveillance. The Judiciary committee bill did not include immunity for telecoms, in part, because the committee ran out of time before considering the hotly contested issue.

One major complaint made by Senators speaking against the immunity provision on Monday was the denial of access to classified letters sent by the Bush administration to the telecoms asking for their cooperation in surveillance. Apparently, the letters lay out the justification for the ongoing cooperation with the surveillance program and were issued in place of a FISA warrant.

Only Senators on the Intelligence committee have been given access to these letters.

Senator Wyden, a member of the Intelligence committee, said that, in his opinion, the letters do not justify the claims of the administration. "I believe that a Senator that was allowed to read these materials, would be astounded to see how flimsy the government's case is on behalf of the warrantless wiretapping program," Wyden said on the Senate floor.

Reid has requested the Bush administration allow the entire Senate to review these letters before they vote on a future FISA update.

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Matt Renner is an assistant editor and Washington reporter for Truthout.

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