August 19, 2019 / by 


My Version of Pelosi’s Statement on Exclusivity

TPMM wrote up a summary of a response Speaker Pelosi gave to a question I asked at a blogger conference call today that has caused a stir. While I don’t disagree with McJoan’s take–if the Speaker had really said immunity was the issue, it would reflect a short-sighted view of FISA (though I’d say the same about other topics, such as segregation; after all, once the government can legally use information that has been improperly collected, that’s toothpaste out of a tube, too)–I’d like to give my version of the conversation, because I don’t think that’s what Pelosi said or meant.

The call was originally supposed to be focused on contempt. So after the Speaker finished telling about the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity bill, someone (Mike Stark, I think) asked for reassurances that the Democrats would continue to pursue contempt after we win the White House and larger margins in both houses next year. Pelosi spoke at length about how important this contempt fight is because of the separation of powers issue–and stated that this is a better case than when GAO tried to get Cheney’s records on his Energy Task Force. Finally, in response to a follow-up, Pelosi stated that Democrats would continue to pursue the contempt issue after November.

Then, I piped in. I basically asked the idea laid out in this post.

Email providers argue that immunity will contribute to uncertainty. They speak of receiving "vague promises," they demand "clear rules" and "bright lines."

Given that complaints about uncertainty and unclear demands have led these email providers to strongly oppose retroactive immunity, it suggests the requests the email providers got were really murky–murky enough that the requests caused the email providers a good deal of trouble.

If the government was making such murky requests, don’t you think Congress ought to know what those requests were in more detail?

That is, since email providers just made a very strong statement against immunity, shouldn’t we be asking them why they’re opposed to it?

Pelosi, having just spoken at length about about separation of powers, then said that immunity wasn’t the only issue, exclusivity was important as well.

Note, I’m not sure I can dispute Paul Kiel’s description, though I don’t remember Pelosi emphasizing exclusivity in the way his post suggests at all. I certainly didn’t hear her say immunity is the issue, but then I was listening for my answer. (I thought about noting that I have been writing about more than immunity, but decided there were better things to do with the Speaker’s time. She can just go ask Russ Feingold.)

I did, however, restate my question, asking why they don’t bring in Google and Microsoft to find out why the people who got these requests from the government are actually opposed to immunity. She said it sounded like a good idea. (Woo hoo!)

The point is, in my opinion it is utterly wrong to paint what Pelosi said as a strategic statement against immunity and for exclusivity. She said nothing about trading immunity for exclusivity. I took her answer, following so closely on a fairly involved statement about the importance of fights over separation of powers, to simply point back that earlier discussion about contempt.

I think Speaker Pelosi was responding with a focus on ways to make sure Article I regains its power from Article II, not about the nitty gritty of the FISA fight.

The Government’s Unclear Demands for Emails

Ryan Singel and Mary have pointed to to Ken Wainstein’s confirmation of something we’ve been discussing for some time: the problem with FISA’s restrictions on foreign communication has to do with email.

But in response to a question at the meeting by David Kris, a former federal prosecutor and a FISA expert, Wainstein said FISA’s current strictures did not cover strictly foreign wire and radio communications, even if acquired in the United States. The real concern, he said, is primarily e-mail, because "essentially you don’t know where the recipient is going to be" and so you would not know in advance whether the communication is entirely outside the United States. [my emphasis]

Now that the Administration is finally telling us some truths about their program, I think it worthwhile to repeat and expand on an observation I made here about CCIA’s letter opposing telecom immunity. CCIA, after all, represents three big email companies: Microsoft (Hotmail), Google (Gmail), and Yahoo. And in their letter, these email companies directly tie immunity with confusing requests from the government.

To the Members of the U.S. House of Representatives:

The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) strongly opposes S. 2248, the “FISA Amendments Act of 2007,” as passed by the Senate on February 12, 2008. CCIA believes that this bill should not provide retroactive immunity to corporations that may have participated in violations of federal law. CCIA represents an industry that is called upon for cooperation and assistance in law enforcement. To act with speed in times of crisis, our industry needs clear rules, not vague promises that the U.S. Government can be relied upon to paper over Constitutional transgressions after the fact. !!

CCIA dismisses with contempt the manufactured hysteria that industry will not aid the United States Government when the law is clear. As a representative of industry, I find that suggestion insulting. To imply that our industry would refuse assistance under established law is an affront to the civic integrity of businesses that have consistently cooperated unquestioningly with legal requests for information. This also conflates the separate questions of blanket retroactive immunity for violations of law, and prospective immunity, the latter of which we strongly support.

Therefore, CCIA urges you to reject S. 2248. America will be safer if the lines are bright. The perpetual promise of bestowing amnesty for any and all misdeeds committed in the name of security will condemn us to the uncertainty and dubious legalities of the past. Let that not be our future as well. [my emphasis]

Email providers argue that immunity will contribute to uncertainty. They speak of receiving "vague promises," they demand "clear rules" and "bright lines."

Given that complaints about uncertainty and unclear demands have led these email providers to strongly oppose retroactive immunity, it suggests the requests the email providers got were really murky–murky enough that the requests caused the email providers a good deal of trouble.

If the government was making such murky requests, don’t you think Congress ought to know what those requests were in more detail?

Shorter Google:

"Don’t eliminate the competitive advantage I gained by trying to protect Americans’ privacy."

McJoan reports that the CCIA wrote a letter to Congress opposing retroactive immunity.

In strong rebuke of the Chamber’s knee jerk Republican pandering, the trade group that actually represents companies in the computer, Internet, information technology, and telecommunications industries, the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) is opposed to telco amnesty [pdf], and have weighed in with their own letter to Congress.

To the Members of the U.S. House of Representatives:

The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) strongly opposes S. 2248, the "FISA Amendments Act of 2007," as passed by the Senate on February 12, 2008. CCIA believes that this bill should not provide retroactive immunity to corporations that may have participated in violations of federal law. CCIA represents an industry that is called upon for cooperation and assistance in law enforcement. To act with speed in times of crisis, our industry needs clear rules, not vague promises that the U.S. Government can be relied upon to paper over Constitutional transgressions after the fact.

CCIA dismisses with contempt the manufactured hysteria that industry will not aid the United States Government when the law is clear. As a representative of industry, I find that suggestion insulting. To imply that our industry would refuse assistance under established law is an affront to the civic integrity of businesses that have consistently cooperated unquestioningly with legal requests for information. This also conflates the separate questions of blanket retroactive immunity for violations of law, and prospective immunity, the latter of which we strongly support. [emphasis McJoan’s]

And if I’m not mistaken, Google and Yahoo are the two primary CCIA members who would be (as the letter states) "called upon for cooperation and assistance in law enforcement" [Update: as WO points out, Evil Bill Gates is as big a player in free email, and was also asked for search queries.] As you’ll recall, both Google and Yahoo were asked to turn over vast amounts of data that would have also revealed a good deal of proprietary information (Yahoo complied, Google fought the request).

The Justice Department has asked a federal judge to compel Google, the Internet search giant, to turn over records on millions of its users’ search queries as part of the government’s effort to uphold an online pornography law.

Google has been refusing the request since a subpoena was first issued last August, even as three of its competitors agreed to provide information, according to court documents made public this week. Google asserts that the request is unnecessary, overly broad, would be onerous to comply with, would jeopardize its trade secrets and could expose identifying information about its users.

Now, I don’t actually know whether or not Google is opposed to retroactive immunity because of this fight over the search queries or a request explicitly tied to terrorism. But I do wonder whether CCIA Google has specific requests in mind when it says,"our industry needs clear rules, not vague promises that the U.S. Government can be relied upon to paper over Constitutional transgressions after the fact."

Chairman Reyes–while you’re talking to telecom companies, maybe you ought to talk to Google, too, to find out what wacky requests the Bush Administration asked it comply with, because it sure sounds like it got some rather ambiguous requests.

Meanwhile, speaking of McJoan’s post–did you notice that yet another Quinn Gillespie client–the US Chamber of Commerce–is pushing for telecom immunity? Has the President’s Counselor recused himself from this fight, because those Quinn Gillespie clients sure seem to be pushing this big.

Mixed Telecom Signals

As Ryan Singel points out, Silvestre Reyes went from writing a scathing editorial with Senators Leahy and Jello Jay and Congressman Conyers on Monday, denouncing Bush’s scare tactics, to announcing imminent agreement by the end of the week.

Regarding a compromise deal, Reyes said: "We think we’re very close, probably within the next week we’ll be able to hopefully bring it to a vote."

Seemingly a pretty big turn-around over the course of the week, no?

But there’s more that’s funky with Reyes’ timing. The AP reports his statement was taped Friday, not Sunday.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, in a television interview broadcast Sunday, did not specifically say whether the House proposal would mirror the Senate’s version.


Reyes, whose interview was taped Friday, appeared on CNN’s "Late Edition," as did Blunt.

Friday happens to be the same day that Harry Reid moved to pass a 30-day extension to the PAA.

As we move forward, there is no reason not to extend the Protect America Act to ensure that there are no gaps in our intelligence gathering capabilities. Even Admiral McConnell, the Director of national Intelligence, has testified that such an extension would be valuable. But the President threatens to veto an extension, and our Republican colleagues continue, inexplicably, to oppose it.

“I urge them to withdraw their opposition. I will now ask unanimous consent to take up and pass S. 2664, a bill to extend the Protect America Act for 30 days, and to make the extension effective as of February 15, to ensure that there are no adverse legal consequences from the President’s decision to let that law expire.”

Now I suppose the 30-day extension, made retroactive to February 15, would amount to just a 15 day extension. And I see the value of forcing Republicans to repeatedly refuse to ensure the wiretaps continue.

But which is it? Imminent deal, or two more weeks?

And while we’re talking about weird temporal anomalies, can someone help me with the timing of this passage?

Reyes, D-Texas, said he was open to that possibility after receiving documents from the Bush administration and speaking to the companies about the industry’s role in the government spy program.

"We are talking to the representatives from the communications companies because if we’re going to give them blanket immunity, we want to know and we want to understand what it is that we’re giving immunity for," he said. "I have an open mind about that."

The word "after" suggests that Reyes has seen what the telecoms did, and now is more comfortable with the idea of immunity. Yet the phrase, "are talking" suggests this discussion is still in process. Is this just some kind of AP grammar, or has Reyes already talked to the telecoms? Have his colleagues from Commerce gotten a chance to talk to the companies they oversee, or just a select group of Congressmen whose word we’re being asked to trust? As McJoan notes,

Bully for you, Congressman Reyes, for being able to talk to the telcos about their illegal activities. How about the rest of us? How about the American citizens who were spied on illegally and want to know why? Perhaps Congressman Reyes should consider calling those telco CEOs into a public hearing so that we could all learn about their role in the spying program before sealing that deal, before ensuring that those activities will never be examined by a court of law. And all due respect to the Congressman, his judgment on this matter shouldn’t be substituted for that of a federal court.

If this is all much ado about nothing–as Reyes suggests–then let’s hear it. Let’s hear what assurances the telecoms had that their spying was legal after DOJ had rejected it in March 2004. Because a bunch of Republican lawyers sure thought it was illegal. Did Bush simply not tell them they were breaking the law? Because, if he did, then we surely have the right to know that, too.

It’s All About $$$

We know that the Administration only became intransigent about immunity for telecoms after a telecom lobbyist took over as Counselor to the President. And we know the telecoms cut off wiretaps–even a FISA one–when they didn’t get paid by the FBI. It’s pretty clear the fight over telecom immunity and FISA is about the money.

Which is probably why Republicans are now whining that telecoms are not paying them enough for their willingness to gut the Constitution. 

In a reflection of the sensitivity of the subject matter, and an apparent recognition that they would undermine their own messaging by appearing to be motivated by fundraising concerns, Republicans on and off Capitol Hill declined to comment on the record.

But several confirmed the griping in GOP leadership ranks over the phone companies’ shifting donations.

"When those numbers are made evident, it causes some angst," one Republican lobbyist said. "Leadership are told by staff, who look through this. There’s communication back and forth" between GOP leadership and downtown.

"There’s no question that from time to time staff, and maybe some Members, say to fellow travelers: ‘Are you giving us some air cover? Are you helping us help you?’"

Added another K Street Republican: "There’s a growing frustration that a lot of these guys getting screwed by Democratic leadership are continuing to load their coffers."

Republican leaders, this lobbyist said, "sit there and scratch their heads and say, ‘We’ve always been very supportive of free markets and our opponents haven’t, so why do they keep feeding the beast?’"

Shorter anonymous Republican aides: cough up for the immunity campaign. Now.

Can we start calling it a quid pro quo if this blatant demand to the telecoms works? And what’s the going rate for gutting the Constitution, anyway?

Republican No Shows on FISA Negotiation

Let’s hope getting stood up teaches Jello Jay about Republican priorities:

In what should have been a bipartisan, bicameral meeting, staff members of the House and Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees met today to work in good faith to reach a compromise on FISA reform. As we have said, we are using this week to work on a compromise that strengthens our national security and protects Americans’ privacy. Unfortunately, we understand our Republican counterparts instructed their staffs not to attend this working meeting, therefore not allowing progress to be made in a bipartisan, bicameral way. While we are disappointed that today’s meeting could not reflect a bipartisan effort, we will continue to work and hope Republicans will join us to put our nation’s security first.

I guess immunity and all that isn’t so important after all…

SCOTUS Says “No Thanks” to ACLU Suit–Will It Change the FISA Debate?

SCOTUS just declined to review the 6th Circuit’s dismissal of the ACLU warrantless wiretapping suit.

 The Supreme Court rejected a challenge Tuesday to the Bush administration’s domestic spying program.

The justices’ decision, issued without comment, is the latest setback to legal efforts to force disclosure of details of the warrantless wiretapping that began after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The American Civil Liberties Union wanted the court to allow a lawsuit by the group and individuals over the wiretapping program. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the suit, saying the plaintiffs could not prove their communications had been monitored.

McJoan and Christy point to the key issue here–standing. As Glenn points out, judges have ruled that this warrantless wiretapping program was illegal, yet also ruled (at least the 6th Circuit) that no one had standing to do anything about it. 

It’s not clear whether the 9th Circuit will rule different on the majority of the 40 or so cases out there. But for now, this decision sure seems to put the immunity debate in a different light. After all, if judges won’t let any of these suits advance because no one can prove standing, then why bother with the constitutionally suspect step of having Congress intervene in the Courts?

The rub is the Al-Haramain lawsuit, where plaintiffs once had documented proof that the government had intercepted calls between one of the Charity’s members and its lawyers in the US. Only the government’s Kafkaesque games, which demand lawyers for the charity treat their own memory as classified, prevents the charity from proving standing.

Is Congress going to bigfoot into the privileges of another branch of government because one Islamic charity once had proof of the Bush Administration’s law-breaking? Or is it the threat of a differing opinion in the 9th Circuit the basis of the single-minded panic about immunity?

Shorter WSJ: George Bush Is Irrelevant and So Is McCain

This WSJ editorial beating up on Dems for their shiny new FISA spine is full of the illogical blathering you’d expect. Take this paragraph, which claims that even with immunity from PAA and even with a FISA court order, the telecoms simply won’t do as they’re mandated to do.

Mr. Reyes claims that existing wiretap orders can stay in place for a year. But that doesn’t account for new targets, which may require new kinds of telecom cooperation and thus a new court order. Mr. Reyes can make all the assertions he wants about immunity, but they are no defense against a lawsuit. For that matter, without a statute in place, even a renewed order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is likely to be challenged as illegitimate. A telecom CEO who cooperates without a court order is all but guaranteed to get not merely a wiretap lawsuit, but also a shareholder suit for putting the company at legal risk.

Apparently, the WSJ believes that even if the telecoms have immunity, it’s no defense against a lawsuit (someone better tell Mitch and Mike McConnell that all their immunity efforts are for naught). And even if the FISA Court issues a warrant under that statute known as "FISA," the telecoms would regard such an order as illegitimate, because there’s no statute supporting it.

And of course, the WSJ parrots the now mandatory claim that ACLU and EFF are really trial lawyers wearing low-paying disguises.

So instead they’re trying to do it through the backdoor by unleashing the trial bar to punish the telephone companies.

I’m most amused, though, by the closing paragraph, which gets to the heart of the panic over FISA.

Mr. Bush has been doing his part in this debate, but his political capital is waning. The Republican who needs to make himself heard now is John McCain. The Arizona Senator is voting the right way, but he seems curiously disengaged from a debate that plays to his national security strengths. The time to speak up is before the next 9/11 Commission. [my emphasis]

Bush’s "political capital is waning" must be GOP-speak for "don’t look now because the Democrats have stood up to Bush."  And, pathetically, the WSJ whines that John McCain isn’t cowering Democrats into unquestioning obedience, either.

It’s like flying without a net, isn’t it, WSJ? When you can’t rely on Bush’s "political capital" to cow others into compliance?

Don’t Cry For The Telcos – Bush & Cheney Are The Only Ones That Are Dying For Immunity

The issues surrounding the FISA legislation are still roiling in Congress, thanks to the sudden appearance of a spine and principle by the Democrats in the House of Representatives (and correspondingly, with no thanks to the spineless and craven counterparts in the Senate, especially Jello Jay Rockefeller, the SSCI, and Harry Reid for bringing the horrid Intel committee bill to the floor instead of the far superior Judiciary bill). The most contentious issue has been, and continues to be, the proposed retroactive immunity for telco companies. Since the ugly head of the issue was first raised last summer with the railroaded passage of the Protect America Act, I have been arguing vehemently that the telcos are not in any grave danger financially from the civil suits currently pending. If their conduct is as has been described to date, they are already protected from liability for the actions that have been described, both by existing statutory immunity and by a right to indemnification from the government. The full court press for immunity by the Administration is entirely about cover for the lawless Bush Administration, and not about the impending financial demise of the telcos.

This post will go back over some of the basis for my argument that has been laid out previously, both here at Emptywheel and, earlier, at The Next Hurrah. I will also try to relate a few basics on what the general concept of indemnification is, and how it relates to contracts, in this case the agreements between the telcos and the Bush Administration. I have been making this argument for quite some time now, since last August, and have yet to have anybody put a significant dent in it; but it is no good if it cannot hold up to scrutiny. In that regard, I have posited my theory to several other lawyers expert in the field of governmental/Fourth Amendment litigation, including some extremely knowledgeable on the very civil suits at issue here, and all have agreed with the validity of my premise.

The Argument: The Bush Administration, with the help of telco providers (telelphone, cellphone, internet and other communication providers) engaged in massive wiretapping and datamining efforts, ostensibly to protect the United States from attack by terrorists. The legality of much of these programs has been questioned in many fora, but the germane ones for the immunity demand by the Administration are the civil suits that have been filed against both the telcos and the government that are currently pending in Federal courts. There are a handful of different suits out there (40 is a number that has been used, but some have been consolidated); the best known are the Hepting v. AT&T case being prosecuted by the EFF and the al-Haramain case. Under both traditional tort theories, as well as specific statutory provisions under FISA and related statutes, monetary damages are sought by the plaintiffs. These suits are not just critical for the individual plaintiffs, but due to the refusal of the Bush Administration to be honest and forthright about what spying they are doing on the American public, and the refusal of Congress to demand answers and accountability on the same, the civil suits are pretty much the only vehicle that the American public, and posterity, have for finding the truth about what has been both done to them and in their name. The Administration now, of course, wants to close off this avenue of discovery and accountability for their nefarious actions through the immunization of the telcos for their acts (which would result in dismissal of the civil suits).

First off, lets be honest; you don’t need immunity for legal and proper conduct. In this regard, telcos are already specifically protected and "immunized" from liability for anything they did that was even remotely legal and performed under the broad provisions of FISA (50 USC 1801 et. seq.), the general criminal wiretapping statutes (18 USC 2510 et. seq., specifically 18 USC 2520), the Communications Act (47 USC et. seq., specifically 47 USC 605) and the Stored Communications Act (18 USC 2701 et. seq., specifically 18 USC 2707 and 2712). There is already, by existing law, no liability for any conduct undertaken, by either the telcos or the government, in compliance with these statutes. So, make no mistake about it, it is blatantly illegal behavior (and NOT good faith legal behavior), performed at the Bush Administration’s demand and direction, for which the immunity is being sought.

Okay, but many, including, seemingly, members of the SSCI and witnesses (see here and here) argue that the telcos were not operating under statutory "safe harbor" provisions as described in the last paragraph. So, what if the telcos engaged in behavior outside of said "safe harbor" statutory provisions that turned out to be illegal behavior, but did so in response to to heated demands from the Bush Administration, and with assurances by the Administration that there was a legal basis and dire necessity; shouldn’t they be entitled to immunity from massive civil liability damages for that conduct? No; that is where the indemnification portion of the argument kicks in. Indemnification is the act of supplying indemnity in a contract:

An indemnity contract arises when one individual takes on the obligation to pay for any loss or damage that has been or might be incurred by another individual. The right to indemnity and the duty to indemnify ordinarily stem from a contractual agreement, which generally protects against liability, loss, or damage.

It is my contention that the telcos have just such indemnification agreements with the Administration/government, that we do not know about because they are classified and hidden, that so protect them for any liability and losses resulting from the litigation they are faced with; thus they do not need immunity to protect them from potential liability verdicts, they are already covered. Telcos have some of the best attorneys and legal departments in the world, and they also recruit heavily from the upper echelons of the Department of Justice (see, for instance: William Barr and Peter Keisler, who is now, of course, conveniently back in the DOJ leadership). Simply put, telco legal departments are huge, experienced, and cutthroat competent. They did not fall off the turnip truck last night, nor any other night; and they have been dealing with wiretapping issues for law enforcement and national security concerns since the telephone came into use. As someone that has had dealings with such entities regarding bad/illegal wiretaps, I can attest that they always protect themselves vis a vis the governmental entity they are working for and are not shy about the use of indemnity provisions.

Okay, but is there any basis for the Administration having given such an indemnification agreement to the telcos in such an unusual national security scenario and with such massive potential exposure? Yes, indeed that is exactly where such agreements are contemplated (see, also, here). As a perusal of the links will exhibit, the President has the authority under 50 USC 1431 et seq. to authorize exactly the type of immunity agreements that are described herein, and, furthermore, to promulgate specific rules (including secrecy and classification, see 50 USC 1433) for their implementation. Now, it should be noted that one of the provisions of 50 USC 1431 is notification of Congress, specifically the respective Armed Services Committees, if the amount in question exceeds 25 million dollars. It will be interesting to see if this was, in fact, done or if the Administration disingenuously took the position that there was not yet an amount in controversy because there was not yet any known or set amount of indemnified liability (which is my bet under both a reading of 1431 and 1432(f)) and has kept this under their belt with the exception of limited disclosure to the Gang of Four/Gang of Eight as discussed here. In either case, this is potentially an explanation for why even the Democratic Congressional leadership has been compliant in ramming through passage of immunity; they don’t want the public to find out that they signed off on massive liability to be paid out of taxpayer’s pockets.

What if the telcos failed to get such indemnification agreements, or alternatively, they did but the agreements were informal or the government refused to honor them? For the reasons stated above, this is next to impossible to believe; the telcos and their legal departments are simply too tough, experienced and savvy to not have covered themselves. In the unlikely event this did turn out to be the case, however, the telcos still have the right to file a claim against the government for their losses incurred as a result of good faith reliance on the Administration’s assertions and demands. Such a claim would most likely be brought pursuant to the Tucker Act as it would arise pursuant to contract or quasi-contract; although a creative litigator could surely plead other conceivable bases as well.

Conclusion: For the foregoing reasons, the telcos are already protected by the immunity of existing statutory safe harbor provisions for legal conduct requested by the Administration and will have indemnity for other acts demanded by the Administration. I respectfully submit that the telcos are already sufficiently protected from the Spectre (some pun intended) of massive financial peril of the existing civil lawsuits; and that the only real reason for the desperate push for immunity is panic among Administration officials that their craven illegality will be exposed and they will be held to account. We now know for a fact, that which we have always suspected, thanks to Mike McConnell, namely that the entire belligerent push for FISA reform is all about immunity, and not about what George Bush would call "protectun Amarikuh".

The minor issues with FISA that need tweaking could have been easily accomplished and, indeed, Congress offered long ago to work with them to do just that; but, of course, were belligerently spurned because, as Dick Cheney famously bellowed, "We believe… that we have all the legal authority we need". This furious push has been about immunity, from the start, to prevent discovery of the Administration’s blatant and unconscionable criminal activity. The House of Representatives, and the cave-in Administration cover-up specialists in the Senate as well, should take a long, hard look at what is really going on here and steadfastly refuse the Administration’s self serving craven grab for the cover of telco immunity.

One last point. In addition to the foregoing, there is an extremely good case to be made that the granting of retroactive immunity to the telcos would comprise an improper and unjust taking of the existing plaintiffs’ right to compensation under the Fifth Amendment and would, therefore, be in direct violation of the Constitution. I don’t want to belabor this thought; just put it out there so that it is considered in the mix. Hey, "Teh Google" is a most marvelous thing; here is an absolutely outstanding discussion of this issue by Professor Anthony J. Sebok of the Cardozo School of Law.

FISA and the Warrantless Wiretap Briefings

As we await certain doom because the NSA has to rely on FISA to authorize any new warrantless wiretaps (though it can continue all the programs currently in place), I wanted to correct what appears to be a common mistake about the earlier warrantless wiretap program. I’ve seen a lot of people claim that all of Congress knew of the program, that the Gang of Eight got regular briefings about it, that Congress wants the telecoms to get immunity because leaders in Congress want immunity.

The reality–at least according to the published record of those briefed on Bush’s warrantless wiretap program–is much more narrow. And as this fight moves into the House, it’d pay to have a clear understanding of who got briefed and how they claimed to have responded.

The Gang of Eight was not briefed regularly on the program

Kit Bond likes to claim that the Gang of Eight–the majority and minority leaders of both houses of Congress and the majority and minority leaders of both intelligence committees–were briefed on the program. That’s a lie. In general, the Administration briefed the intelligence committee heads, but not the Majority and Minority leaders. The first time the entire Gang of Eight was briefed on the program was when, on March 10, 2004, the Administration tried to get them to authorize continuing the program even though Jim Comey said it was illegal. At the time, the following were members of the Gang of Eight:

  • Denny Hastert
  • Bill Frist
  • Tom Daschle
  • Nancy Pelosi
  • Porter Goss
  • Jane Harman
  • Pat Roberts
  • Jello Jay Rockefeller

After Harry Reid became Minority Leader of the Senate in 2005, he received a briefing on February 3, 2005–by himself, as did Crazy Pete Hoekstra when he became HPSCI Chair in September 2004. There was not any other briefing where the entire Gang of Eight got the same briefing. Though after Risen and Lichtblau exposed the program, Jello Jay received a briefing with the Republican half of the Gang of Eight, and then Reid, Pelosi, and Harman received a briefing (which Roberts also attended).

As Arlen “Scottish Haggis” Specter has pointed out, the Administration was in violation of the National Security Act when, with the exception of March 10, 2004, it limited its briefings to just the intelligence committee heads.

The entire Congress was not briefed on the program

Aside from those members who have, at one point, been members of the Gang of Eight (Harman no longer is, and Pelosi has had two roles in it), just three members of Congress got briefings on the program before Risen and Lichtblau revealed it. The day after the hospital confrontation, Tom DeLay got a briefing, probably so he could tell Cheney that even he could not force through a bill authorizing the illegal program.

And, December 1, 2001, Daniel Inouye and Ted Stevens–as the ranking members of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee–got a briefing, presumably so they could authorize the NSA to pay the telecoms tons of money to wiretap Americans. (Bill Young and John Murtha got briefings in 2006, after the Administration started briefing more members of the intelligence committees presumably in response to the Risen-Lichtblau revelations.)

Tom DeLay is, thankfully, moot. But the Inouye briefing is interesting in that he was one of the sane Democrats who repeatedly voted with Republicans in support of trashing civil liberties and privacy.

Focus on Jello Jay, Harman, and Pelosi

Certainly, Jello Jay’s example in the Senate is not cause for optimism. Jello Jay attended the March 10, 2004 briefing where the Administration proposed going forward without AG approval, tantamount to going forward illegally. Jello Jay claims he never affirmatively approved the program.

The record needs to be set clear that the Administration never afforded members briefed on the program an opportunity to either approve or disapprove the NSA program.

And Jello Jay warned Cheney that the program seemed to violate the ban on data mining–at precisely the time when the Senate was banning data mining. Jello Jay should know better than anyone that the Administration broke the law–and that the telecoms continued their cooperation at a point when they didn’t have AG approval, thereby breaking the law.

Nevertheless, Jello Jay supported immunity. You might argue that Jello Jay was protecting himself–except that he left a clear paper trail of his opposition.

But thus far, the House is different. Jane Harman has shown interest in compromising in the past. But significantly, she was not among the 21 Blue Dogs who petitioned Pelosi to go with the SSCI bill just passed by the Senate. Harman has opposed immunity without full disclosure (note, since she’s no longer in HPSCI, she hasn’t seen the documents explaining the legal rationale for the program), and I think if we can keep Harman with the majority, it will keep a number of other Democrats who might cave to Republican pressure.

And as for Pelosi? She has stated clearly that she opposed the program going forward without AG approval; she opposed the program in its most illegal form.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who attended the 2004 White House meeting as House Democratic minority leader, said through a spokesman that she did not dispute that the majority of those present supported continuing the intelligence activity. But Ms. Pelosi said she dissented and supported Mr. Comey’s objections at the meeting,

So like Jello Jay, Pelosi didn’t exactly approve of the worst parts of this program. And, as Novak describes, with the support of an overwhelming majority of her caucus, Pelosi used her prerogatives to stall Bush’s push for immunity.

For the moment, Pelosi can and is using her position to ensure we get a real compromise bill (and Harman’s support may help keep Blue Dogs with the caucus). And it certainly helps that Silvestre Reyes is writing scathing letters chiding Bush for his fear-mongering.

This fight in the House is going to come down to the roughly 40-50 Congressmen who preferred to side with the Republicans/bow to fear. But so long as Pelosi supports the will of the rest of the caucus, we can win that fight.

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