The Senate did just that in February. It passed a bill to grant telecom companies immunity for their work with the government. But liberal leaders in the House refused to go along with the plan.
It took months of pushing, but a group of conservative House Democrats — the “Blue Dogs” — finally forced the recalcitrant House leadership (including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco) to move forward on the measure in June. That logjam broken, a compromise bill passed by an overwhelming margin: 293 to 129.
But now things are gummed up in the Senate. Privacy activists — many of them parties to the lawsuits — are lobbying hard to block passage of the bill. So far, they’ve succeeded. What was expected to be a cakewalk to passage before the July 4 holiday has now bogged down. The Senate will take up the bill again when it returns to town next week. Expect more delays: liberals like Chris Dodd and Russ Feingold, goaded by the activists and wary of handing anything that even looks like a win to the Bush administration, are threatening to filibuster any bill that ends the lawsuits.
Enough is enough. It’s time to stop playing politics with intelligence and national security.
People on both sides of the debate agree that the telecom companies are being dragged into court for doing nothing more than what the government asked and assured them was completely legal. If any laws were broken — and there’s good reason to believe none were — it was the government’s fault. It’s not fair to hold these companies liable for trying to help protect the nation.
Nor is it sensible. How will they respond next time the government comes calling?
Congress has the power to exercise oversight of the executive branch, including reviewing intelligence operations. It also has the power of the pen and the purse to encourage the executive branch to change course. Exercising those powers can be dangerous — if something goes wrong, like another terrorist attack, you’re on the hook — but that’s what accountability is all about.
Instead of making the tough and probably unpopular choices, some members of Congress would rather leave that to the White House and the courts, while amping up their criticism of what the administration actually does. They blow hot air and “taking a stand” against the companies that answered the call when the country needed their help, to the adoration of activists and editorial pages that never note their failure to actually do anything. It’s good political theater but lousy policy.
This can’t go on forever. The jig will be up when a court forces a party to divulge details about our most sensitive intelligence operations — which could happen any day now. At that point, delay will have become failure to act, and Congress will have to take the heat.
— Andrew M. Grossman is senior legal policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).