Yesterday, House Democrats finally did something to defend the consitution by not doing anything. The Orewellianly titled "Protect America Act" was signed into law in August, when Congress was trying to head back to their districts/states to campaign and "suddenly" a terrorist warning for the Capitol came out. NSA head Mike McConnell threatened an attack if Congress didn't pass the law...so they did. Of course, no plot was uncovered, no suspects were arrested and nothing happened. Except that telecom companies, who are facing lawsuits from their customers because they alledgedly violated their privacy, were temporarily shielded from liability.
That liability was set to run out the beginning of 2008. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid promised civil liberarians that they wouldn't be a rubber stamp next time around. Yet Reid chose a Bush-blessed bill over a rhetroactive-immunity-free version for debate, and it passed the senate with 58 votes. Rather than rushing to pass an identical version of the bill in the House, the leadership there finally showed some leadership...and allowed the PAA to expire yesterday before Congress once again went home for a long weekend.
Bush and his allies claimed that the House had "let the terrorist win" by depriving them of effective tools to catch suspects. This is however, patently false. Now that the PAA is no longer in effect, those seeking to wiretap must get a warrrant from a secret court located inside the Justice Department's DC office building that has only denied warrants a handful of times in 30 years. Oh, and these warrants may be acquired 72 hours AFTER the suspect had been wiretapped.
Besides immunity to AT&T and other companies that allowed NSA to install devices to listen into all of our calls without a warrant, the PAA also allowed the Attorney General's word to trump any need for judicial review, since Bush's Attorney Generals are known for their "honesty" and "independence." FISA is a product of both the Watergate scandal and the Church Committee, which discovered that the Government is happy to spy on American citizens and political enemies of the Oval Office if no one notices.
Now we don't know what the Administration's been listening to or why. We do that the warrantless wiretapping program began BEFORE 9/11. We also know that due to the volume of calls, that no government agency could employ a sufficient number of people to listen to them all. Therefore, the devices installed in places like AT&T San Franscico office are designed for data mining. In fact, we have a former AT&T employee who gives us all the details of how it was done at his company. We don't know who the targets were or are, but we do know the potential for abuse of such absolute power (see Nixon, Richard Millhouse and Lord Acton) is there and we know that data mining has at best questionable utility in finding/stopping terrorist activities.
Some are willing to pull out all the stops (like laws and the constitution) to reduce any potential threat to the United States, even if it ironically makes the potential for threats worse by wasting time, effort and money on something useless and/or incites more people to join the Jihad against America. VP Cheney calls it the one-percent-doctrine, that is, if there is even a one percent chance that something might threaten US security, it is the responsibilty of the government to treat it as a certainty and do everything to stop it from occuring. I seem to recall that in 1945, we set up international tribunals to prosecute crimes against humanity, including those who tortured (using waterboarding) their enemies to gain intelligence to save their country. We lead the world to establish international laws against torture and for human rights shortly thereafter.
We beat the Soviets, the Nazis, and the Japanese without the use of torture or the need to spy on our own people without warrants. While the threat to American saftey from religious extremists remains very real, it is no where near as big a threat as those three were to the United States. No government, no matter how well meaning, should be above the law that created it.