Today’s Must Read

March 13, 2008 9:55 a.m.

Later today, the House will vote on its surveillance bill, a bill that rejects retroactive immunity for the telecoms who cooperated with the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program and provides a number of tougher civil liberty checks on the surveillance going forward.

The general expectation is that the bill will pass, but the vote might be quite close. As CQ reported last night, none of the 21 Blue Dog Dems seem prepared to say where they’ll vote — a number saying yesterday that they hadn’t even read the bill yet.

It was a defiant move for the House Dem leadership to bring such a bill to a vote, and the administration clearly is not happy. This morning, President Bush just made umpteenth public statement on the surveillance bill, full of the usual canards about greedy trial lawyers exploiting the telecoms’ patriotic participation in the program, “dangerous intelligence gaps,” and the specter of the telecoms refusing to cooperate going forward because the lawsuits did not get wiped out. His message was clear: “voting for this bill would make our country less safe” and (just in case they weren’t clear on this) Americans “want their children to be safe from terror.” The House should not leave for its planned two-week Easter recess, he said, without passing the Senate’s bill, which the White House supports.

Here’s video of Bush this morning:

If the House were to pass the bill today, it would make its way over to the Senate, where it would be sure to undergo some significant modifications (including, most likely, reinserting retroactive immunity). Senate intelligence committee Chair Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has said as much. That’s a process that wouldn’t get underway until April. But the White House is impatient and evidently hopes that moderate Dems will join with Republicans in voting down the leadership’s bill, after which the administration would continue to exert pressure to pass the Senate bill. You can be sure that outside groups would continue to pound Dems with ads screaming that the country has been left defenseless.

Inconveniently enough for the administration, there’s still plenty more to be learned about just how the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program worked. For instance, just this morning, The New York Times reports that the FBI used so-called “blanket” letters — letters that were a “one-step operation used to justify the collection of hundreds of phone and e-mail records at a time” — at least 11 times in 2006. That and other abuses of national security letters by the FBI are illustrated in this report (pdf) by the Department of Justice’s inspector general.

And as we learned only this Monday (thanks to The Wall Street Journal), the FBI’s data feeds the NSA’s massive driftnet, which in turn can result in wiretaps through the Terrorist Surveillance Program. But the administration, of course, wants the issue closed. Dems should “stop playing politics with the past,” as Bush put it this morning — it’s time to succumb to the politics of the present.

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