Before Congress adjourned earlier this month it passed a series of changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act designed to allow the Bush administration wide latitude in spying on telephone communications overseas, even if a participant in the call was in the United States, even if both participants were U.S. citizens. The changes were demanded by President Bush, who had seen his ability to scrutinize purported terrorists sharply curtailed by the FISA court, which ruled that this broad level of surveillance was banned by the FISA statute.
In response, Congress rushed through a bill authorizing the changes, with a “sunset clause,” forcing the issue to be revisited within six months. Why Congress did so is a mystery. President Bush had threatened to shame congress by demanding it not take its usual August recess unless action was taken — but President Bush says a lot of things, and given the fact that his support at this time is down to reanimated dead cats and other Kool-Aid drinkers, it’s hard to imagine that anyone really takes him seriously at this point. And indeed, if Congress was shamed into skipping its vacation, that wouldn’t exactly be the worst thing in the world.
At any rate, Congress acted to give the Bush administration expanded surveillance powers above and beyond those previously supported by FISA. Perhaps a different administration — say, the Ford administration, or the first Bush administration — could be trusted to use these powers judiciously. Perhaps the oversight stipulations added by Congress, making the attorney general responsible to certify that safeguards are being met, would be something other than a bitter joke with a different attorney general in office.
But you pass a bill for the administration you have, not the administration you want. And the Bush administration has not exactly shown itself to be completely trustworthy on issues of civil liberties. Indeed, the only reason this went to Congress at all is that a FISA court ruled against the Bush administration; the surveillance had been known to run afoul of FISA’s statutory language, and rather than request a change from Congress, the administration chose instead to simply assert that the law meant nothing next to the untrammeled vision of executive power that the administration believed in.
Faced with a calamity or, more appropriately, faced with the same laws and restrictions that our nation has dealt with since the Cold War, the administration pushed Congress to act, act without long debate or discussion, act immediately, lest disaster befall our country. And Congress, including sixteen senators and 41 representatives from the Democratic Party, gave it the green light.
Three of those Democrats were from Minnesota: Rep. Colin Peterson, Rep. Tim Walz, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. And two of them — Walz and Klobuchar — should know better.
Both defeated well-known Republicans, Klobuchar triumphing over Rep. Mark Kennedy, Walz ousting Rep. Gil Gutknecht. And both won in no small part because Minnesotans were tired of Congress serving as a rubber stamp for the Bush administration.
It’s possible, I suppose, that the changes to FISA are really super-important. But that argues all the more that the worst possible decision Congress could make was to blindly lurch forward into the future. If this is important to national security and our civil liberties — and it most certainly is — it needs to be done right, with hard questions asked and with Congress serving as a co-equal branch, not a rubber stamp for the Bush administration’s demands.
Congress failed to do that. Its members didn’t ask questions. They gave in to everything George W. Bush wanted and did it in record time. They did so in order to get to their break. In short, Congress failed us. And Amy Klobuchar and Tim Walz cast votes that Mark Kennedy and Gil Gutknecht would have been proud of, which begs the question: Why didn’t we just vote for those guys and be done with it?