FISA: Telecoms will continue wiretap cooperation -- for now

Despite the impasse between Congress and the White House over new terrorism surveillance legislation, telecoms will continue to cooperate with government wiretaps.

Despite the impasse between Congress and the White House over new terrorism surveillance legislation, telecom companies will keep cooperating with government wiretaps for now, the Bush administration said over the weekend.

U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey and National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell issued a joint statement Saturday announcing that the arrangement will continue even though the telecoms are uneasy.

"The Department of Justice and the intelligence community have been working assiduously to mitigate the effects of the uncertainty caused by the failure to enact long-term modernization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978," the statement said. "We learned [Friday] night after sending this letter that, as a result of these efforts, new surveillances under existing directives issued pursuant to the Protect America Act will resume, at least for now."

The Senate approved a measure giving retroactive lawsuit immunity to private entities that cooperate with warrantless wiretaps President Bush authorized after 9-11. House Democrats opposed it, however, and leaders of both chambers have been rooting around for a compromise. Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement saying Congress remains committed to finding a compromise.

"The House and Senate met again today to produce a strong new FISA bill and once again, Republicans and the White House refused to come to the negotiating table," she said. "Despite the Republicans' apparent insistence on turning this into a partisan issue, Congressional Democrats will continue to reach out in a bipartisan way to finalize a strong FISA law that protects our national security and our civil liberties."

The issue has touched off heated debate over the merits of shielding telecoms from lawsuits, and the practice of government wiretapping in general.

Some deem the practice a necessary tool in fighting the War on Terrorism, while others say it tramples on citizens' civil liberties. The debate among readers responding to a SearchSecurity.com column on FISA illustrates how divisive an issue this has become. More than 70 comments running the spectrum of viewpoints have been submitted since the column was published.

Several readers noted that there has been confusion over the actual status of wiretapping. "The FISA law has not expired," one reader noted. "What has expired was an expansion of the law that the White House pushed last fall to be able to monitor an expanded array of communications inside this country. The original law has not expired. We can still wiretap and monitor communications just as we did before the Bush Administration."

Some opponents of warrantless wiretapping suggested that the Bush Administration is using the terror threat as an excuse to create a police state.

"We've let this government use the war against terror to justify all manner of trampling of our rights, from warrantless wiretaps to surveillance of Internet traffic to the [creation of] the Homeland Security department,'" one reader wrote. "What exactly is the mission of the Department of Defense, if not the security of the homeland?"

Another reader wrote, "If we continue down this precarious path we only allow more freedoms to be stripped away, all being cloaked behind this terrorism mania. Congress, in my opinion, has made a wise decision to allow this law to expire."

A majority of respondents took the opposite view, saying wiretapping has always been a necessary component of national security, predating the War on Terrorism, the Cold War and WW II.

"I don't frankly see why this generates so much fear," a reader wrote. "I have not met nor heard of one single innocent individual who has suffered as a result of FISA. And it's not as if we're talking about a rare occurrence. Presidents throughout history have used executive privilege to take actions that they otherwise wouldn't in peacetime for the benefit of properly executing a given war or ensuring national security interests."

Another reader wrote, "I don't think our rights are being violated if the government listens in on certain overseas phone calls, especially if the calls are going to designated terrorist countries. Privacy is maintained completely within the US. Outside the US I think the rules should and need to be different in terms of privacy."

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