by Ryan Singel and Kevin Poulsen
Wednesday, 15 November 2006
The outgoing chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), introduced a new spying bill on Tuesday that would increase the number of personnel involved in issuing warrants, makes minor expansions to the number of legislators told about warrantless surveillance and transfer lawsuits challenging the warrantless wiretapping program to the Supreme Court. In September, a Specter-written bill that dramatically loosened the nation's surveillance laws passed out of committee but was never voted on by the full Senate.
The American Civil Liberties Union immediately blasted the bill as an last minute attempt to legalize the government's warrantless wiretapping program, despite the fact that the new bill has no such language. The ACLU sees the bill as a Trojan Horse that could be approved by the Senate and then sent to a committee to be reconciled with an already-passed House bill written by Heather Wilson. That bill immunizes telecoms such as AT&T from pending lawsuits, allows the government to engage in wide-spread warrantless surveillance without getting warrants, and legalizes snooping on Americans' communications with anyone outside the country by redefining the term "electronic surveillance."
"Now is not the time for Congress to focus on controversial issues," Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office said in a press release. "The majority of the appropriations bills have yet to be adopted. If there is to be a new spirit of bipartisan cooperation in Congress, lawmakers must not legislate in haste and without a full understanding of the facts. If the new Specter bill were adopted, it would be reconciled with the horrible Wilson bill, putting the privacy of innocent Americans at great risk."
It is unclear if this is what Specter is trying to do. Specter originally said he was outraged by the program and even threatened to subpoena the Administration to learn more about the program, but then co-wrote legislation with the White House that would have radically re-written the nation's surveillance laws. Those laws were passed in the 1970s, following the exposure of widespread government surveillance of domestic political groups and figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
Despite the Administration's arguments that a wartime president's powers are not bound by Congress, President Bush has emphasized that he wants the lame duck Congress to explicitly legalize the program that intercepts communications from a person in the United States to someone outside the United States, when one of the parties is suspected of having some nexus to terrorism.