09 July 2008

Mixed Feelings on the FISA Bill

The Telecom Surveillance Bill, which passed with a wide margin today, has mixed implications for the American people. The element of the bill which would give immunity to the telecommunications companies who had helped the government in its surveillance of suspected terrorists should have only been applied to the cases before the evidence of the practice became public. The telecommunications companies were told by federal authorities that the wireless tapping was acceptable and necessary to protect America from future terrorist attacks and undoubtedly there was intelligence gathered that did in fact protect our nation from further harm.

However, the protection from civil lawsuits going forward should have been stripped from this bill. That may sound like it runs counter from the information in the preceding paragraph, but there is a distinction that needs to me made. Originally, when the program was run in secrecy, corporations were told that they would not face civil or criminal repercussions for their assistance with the program. If that is what they were told and had operated under that philosophy, with assurances from the White House, then they should have been granted immunity as this bill did provide. However, going forward, the implications can be grave.

Monitoring suspected terrorists’ communications is essential to national defense; there is no arguing that point. However, the text of the bill does not limit the scope to suspected terrorists, rather, that the government simply needs to have reasonable belief that one party is overseas. One can easily see how this could lead to far reaching abuses and lead to a domestic spying program to be utilized for political purposes as opposed to national defense reasons. Whether or not you trust the current Administration should not factor into the evaluation when determining the validity of granted future immunity to the companies involved. Subsequent administrations and political operatives who one day will run the nation will also have authorization to utilize this program.

The bill, does however, provide for an emergency tap to be utilized and then give the government up to one week to get a court order in order to use the information. This is a very careful dance on civil liberties. Shielding the telecoms from lawsuits from violations of this law going forward presents and opportunity for them to do corporate spying as well, as rest assured, they will be monitoring communications as well. It also makes them somewhat “bullet-proof” and will provide a temptation for them and the government to commit violations of the provisions within the bill.

Will that happen? The likelihood not severe, but it is a possibility and one that should be in the front of people’s minds when discussing these issues and formulating opinions. In the digital age, striking a balance between national defense and protecting civil liberties is a difficult task. This is especially true when battling an enemy which has time and again shown no regard for civil liberties, freedom, democracy, or human life. It is paramount that we protect ourselves. Giving blanket protection to the telecom industries and the political parties charged with safekeeping the program and our personal data and communications going forward may well prove to be a costly mistake. Time and close observation of the program will the only means of evaluating this bill. America will win the War on Terror, but this bill will remain long after we have achieved victory.

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