Civil libertarians are alarmed by Sunday’s interview with the House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, suggesting that the House may surrender on the telecom immunity question. For a short period of time, it appeared that for once members of Congress would actually stand on principle and refuse immunity. Now, Reyes is saying that he is open to “compromise” and that a deal may be close.
Reyes comments came in a statement with CNN. He stated that “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 . . . I have an open mind about that. . . .We think we’re very close, probably within the next week we’ll be able to hopefully bring it to a vote.”
Bush has already allowed the law to expire rather than agree to anything short of immunity for these companies. Thus, any compromise would have to include that component. Many were hoping that this would be off-the-table since there is no public policy justification for wiping out dozens of lawsuits by civil libertarians. Earlier, the White House and GOP rejected an alternative to substitute the government as the liable party if these lawsuits result in victories of civil libertarians. This would seem the perfect illustration of the use of national security to benefit allies of the White House financially. Yet, members would have to stand up to some of the most powerful and well-connected lobbyists in Washington, including many close friends.
A capitulation on this point would destroy a small flickering flame of hope by many citizens that Congress was not entirely in the pocket of lobbyists and could on this one occasion stand firm on a point of legal principle. If the companies and the White House were acting lawfully as they insist, there is nothing to fear from judicial review. If not, it is important to establish that this was an unlawful program.
This is not even a case where civil libertarians are asking anything special from members. All members have to do is stand with our legal system; to allow the courts to be the judge of the illegality of a program. All they have to do is to refuse to join the Executive Branch in blocking the Judicial Branch. Even with our leaders, that would seem a pretty small request of courage — to simply do nothing. However, it is much to demand when friends in the telecom lobby are calling and members see no personal benefit from allowing civil liberties to be addressed in court.
If the House caves, it will confirm that all of this back and forth is merely political theater for voters to believe that someone actually gives a hoot about civil liberties. The Senate did the same thing. When voters rioted over immunity in 2007, they delayed the vote in the hope that people would forget out it. They claimed a great victory for civil liberties in the delay when the fix was in for a vote in 2008. Now, the House seems to be testing the waters to see if it can get away with the same tactic. It is like a game of three card Monty with our liberties. Voters have to guess where members have put their rights at any given time until they finally walk away in frustration.
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