Bush battles to keep spy law

February 15, 2008 7:33:49 PM PST
President Bush says the country is more in danger because Congress did not adopt an eavesdropping bill giving telecommunication companies immunity from prosecution.

The Federal Intelligence Survailance Act or "FISA" expires Friday at midnight.

The government can and is still eavesdropping on telephone and email communications. What we're talking about here is the question of retroactive immunity for the phone companies suspected of cooperating with the government's program of warrant-less wire tapping, that was uncovered by the New York Times back in 2005.

The telephone companies that compiled with the government's program of warrant-less wire tapping are being sued.

One of the lawsuits filed by San Francisco's Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"It was illegal," said Cindy Cohn from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Cindy Cohn is legal director of E.F.F. She says the phone companies should've stood up to the government.

"At some point the phone company needs to say you know what we have an obligation to our customers and the country to follow the law," said Cohn.

When I asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about granting retro active immunity she scoffed saying Congress doesn't even know to what extent the phone companies cooperated.

"The president is withholding that information from many of us in the Congress. Why would you say you have no responsibility for what you have done when we don't even know what they have done," said Speaker of the House (D) Nancy Pelosi.

The House has refused to include immunity in it's reauthorization of the FISA law, but the Senate version does include it.

"The blame is with the administration," said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) California.

Senator Dianne Feinstein voted against stripping retroactive immunity out of the Senate's version of the bill.

"Should the government have gone to the court yes and gotten approval for their program, so I don't blame the companies for the failure of the government," said Senator Feinstein.

In the end Feinstein voted against the Senate's bill because it didn't do enough to curb the power of the president.

But the bill passed the Senate with immunity intact, and that is the version the president says must be approved -- for the safety of the country.

"We've got to give our professionals the tools they need to be able to figure out what the enemy is up to so we can stop it," said President Bush.

At Berkeley's Boalt Hall Law School, Paul Schwartz is an international expert on information law and privacy.

"If the government feels that it needs to do something that the law does not allow, what they need to do is go to Congress and say look we got to change the law," said U.C. Berkeley law professor Paul Schwartz.

The president threatened to delay his trip to Africa if the House did not back down. Lawmakers on Friday recessed for the President's Day weekend without granting retroactive immunity, and President Bush is on his way to Africa for a summit.