The House of Representatives went into recess for 10 days Feb. 15 without acting on President George W. Bush’s demand that they extend his sweeping authority to engage in warrantless spying under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Bush’s legislation also granted retroactive immunity to AT&T, Verizon and other telecommunications companies that collaborated in spying on innocent Americans.
The day before they went home, the lawmakers voted 223 to 32 to hold in contempt two of Bush’s closest advisers—White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and White House Counsel Harriet Miers for hiding behind Bush’s claim of “executive privilege” in refusing to testify about the White House role in the Dec. 7, 2006, firing of seven U.S. attorneys. The mass firings, critics charge, was an attempt to turn officials in the Justice Department into gendarmes of the Republican, corporate, rightwing agenda, especially to enforce GOP election dominance.
Bolten and Miers defied repeated House and Senate subpoenas last year ordering them to appear and testify. The Bush administration offered to let the officials testify as long they were not under oath and no transcript was taken. During debate on the contempt resolution, Feb. 14, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) retorted, “This is beyond arrogance. It is hubris taken to its ultimate degree.”
That contempt citation and the refusal to be stampeded on FISA were a clear signal that House Democrats have decided to stand and fight Bush fear and intimidation tactics in a crucial election year.
The extraordinary powers to intercept without warrants e-mails and telephone calls under FISA was approved last August as part of the misnamed “Protect America Act.” It was set to expire Feb. 16. Bush demanded that the lawmakers approve his bill making permanent his authority to engage in this spying, claiming the nation faces terror strikes that would make the Sept. 11, 2001, attack “pale by comparison.”
House Intelligence Committee Chair Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) told his colleagues, “I for one, do not intend to back down – not to the terrorists and not to anyone, including a president who wants us to cower in fear. We are a strong nation. We cannot allow ourselves to be scared into suspending the Constitution.”
Earlier, the Senate voted 68 to 29 to rubberstamp Bush’s bill. Senators shot down an amendment by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) to remove language granting immunity from lawsuits for corporations that went along with the electronic spying.
The showdown in the Senate came just before the Feb. 12 “Potomoc Primary.” Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) returned from presidential campaigning to vote for Bush’s spy bill. “We need it,” McCain said. “I think it’s disgraceful that the House did not act and this is going to lapse.”
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in the nation’s capital but did not return to the Senate to vote against the FISA bill.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) came to the Senate floor and voted in support of a filibuster against the repressive bill. The Illinois Senator, frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, praised the “grassroots movement” that has “pushed this issue to the forefront…You have sent a message to the halls of power that the American people will not permit the abuse of power.”
Obama vowed when elected president “to stand with you in the fights to come” in defense of the Constitution and the rule of law.
Even Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) admitted in an NPR interview that Bush was engaging in scare tactics. The original FISA legislation extended warrantless surveillance authority until at least August or September. The “real issue,” McConnell said, “is liability protection for the private sector.”
Democratic leaders attempted to push through a temporary 21-day extension of the FISA program without language immunizing AT&T and Verizon. But 195 Republicans voted no, and Bush vowed to veto it.
MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann praised the lawmakers for going into recess, “leaving Bush to twist slowly, slowly in a wind of his own making.” Bush’s threat to veto the 21-day extension proves the fakery of his “daily message of fear” that the Democrats were leaving the nation open to terrorism, he said.
“You’re a fascist,” Olbermann snapped. “One thing we know about Big Brother, Mr. Bush, is that he — you — is a liar…We will not fear because Mr. George W. Bush wants us to fear.”
Caroline Frederickson, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union spoke in somewhat more sedate language. “The House leadership has shown real courage by standing up to the President, in the face of misleading attacks and intimidation and they must be commended,” she said at a Washington news conference.