Civil libertarians are demanding that Congress use its September session to undo damage it did to Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights.

On Aug. 3-4, the ill-named Protect America Act zoomed through Congress by votes of 60 to 28, in the Senate, and 227 to 183, in the House of Representatives. This bill puts Congress’ stamp on approval on one of the most outrageous abuses of power by the Bush administration, namely its bypassing of the required oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court.

The Bush administration has been the most secretive and controlling of any executive branch since Nixon. The Bush administration explained the illegal wiretapping in terms of the speed needed to get authority to spy on possible terrorists and other people threatening national security, but the FISA court members responded that they can turn around legitimate warrant requests within hours.

Earlier, it was revealed that the National Security Agency, in cahoots with private telecommunications companies including AT&T, Verizon and Bellsouth, had been spying on massive numbers of communications between people in the U.S., including U.S. citizens, and persons overseas, without a warrant and without any judicial oversight.

The director of the ACLU Legislative Office, Caroline Frederickson, said the law constitutes a “get out of jail free card” for major telecommunications companies that had knowingly and illegally connived with the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation and the Center for Constitutional Rights have gone to court to challenge the constitutionality of the program and the legality of the participation of private telecommunications companies.

The Democratic-led Congress put out subpoenas to force the government to reveal the details of the spying. But then Republicans in Congress went to work to create legislation that would make the illegal practice legal.

The result was the Protect America Act, which allows the government to spy on telephone and e-mail communications without a warrant if one party in the communication is outside of the United States, and if there is some threat to U.S. national security, as defined by whoever is in power in Washington.

The bill has a 180-day sunsetting clause, but abusive investigations could continue for up to one year more if authorized by the Attorney General or the Director of National Intelligence.

In a display of arrogant contempt, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell said in a newspaper interview that people who are trying to find the details of the NSA program are causing Americans to die in terrorist attacks. He also claimed that fewer than 100 people in the U.S. had been targeted for this surveillance, which many are taking with a grain of salt. McConnell also annoyed Congresspersons by revealing secret decisions of the FISA court, including its determination that the original NSA spying program was illegal!

Civil libertarians have mounted a strong campaign to amend or repeal the bill in September. The word is that many Democrats, after feeling the fire from their constituents, are now willing to do just that. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has threatened White House officials with a contempt citation if they (including the office of Vice President Cheney) continue to sandbag the subpoenas for documents on the spying program. A motion to censure the administration, submitted by Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) in the Senate and Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) in the House, encompasses the warrantless wiretapping as well as many other abuses.

In addition to the ACLU (www.aclu.org), the National Lawyers Guild (www.nlg.org) and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (www.bordc.org) and others are participating in this effort and have developed materials for the average person to use in lobbying their congresspersons.

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