Today, the Congress will begin debating a FISA bill that includes immunity for telecommunications companies. When Bush asked these telcoms to participate in warrantless wiretapping, he was asking them to break the law. The fact that the White House is insisting on the immunity is contrary to their claims that the program was entirely legal. If the telcoms are golden, there's no reason for the immunity.
There's some question as to whether or not they'll get the cover. Sen. Russ Feingold writes:
Unfortunately, the bill we are going to be considering is the one reported out by the Senate Intelligence Committee in October, S. 2248. It did not have to be this way. Thirteen Senators joined me last week in asking the Majority Leader to instead bring up a bill that includes the changes approved by the Judiciary Committee last month. That bill, while not perfect by any means, was the product of an open process and heeded the advice of many experts and advocates to provide greater protection for the international communications of innocent Americans. And, unlike the Intelligence Committee bill, the Judiciary bill does not provide automatic, retroactive immunity for companies alleged to have cooperated with the administration's illegal warrantless wiretapping program.
Whether the bill Feingold and company want to advance is the one that will go forward is an open question. And there's more than one reason to think it won't be -- because there's more than one reason why many want to give the telcoms immunity. While no one will say it, investigating the legality of the warrantless wiretap program would be much more difficult without the honest testimony of telcom execs. And those executives aren't very damned likely to be honest if that testimony amounts to the admission to a crime.
No one will say it openly for more than one reason -- it's a cynical plan and it would be stupid to reveal that hand if you were holding it. You can always grant immunity to individuals later, but it's not a 100% guarantee against prosecution and lawsuits. All that would mean would be that their own testimony couldn't be used as evidence. Giving them blanket immunity paves the way for them to speak openly.
I have no proof, of course, that anyone's thinking this way -- although it's clear that Feingold isn't one of them. But it's easy to look at the immunity and see a sell out, which it may not be for all voting in favor.
No matter which bill goes through -- with or without immunity -- the push for impeachment goes on. And the best case for impeachment may be warrantless wiretapping. Not only is the wiretapping illegal, but it's been proven illegal in court -- it is a clear crime. In pushing to open the hearings called for in Dennis Kucinich's impeachment resolution, Reps. Robert Wexler, Luis Gutierrez, and Tammy Baldwin write:
On November 7, the House of Representatives voted to send a resolution of impeachment of Vice President Cheney to the Judiciary Committee. As Members of the House Judiciary Committee, we strongly believe these important hearings should begin.
The issues at hand are too serious to ignore, including credible allegations of abuse of power that if proven may well constitute high crimes and misdemeanors under our constitution. The charges against Vice President Cheney relate to his deceptive actions leading up to the Iraq war, the revelation of the identity of a covert agent for political retaliation, and the illegal wiretapping of American citizens.
Those looking to open hearings on Cheney need leverage. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's wrongheaded opposition to impeachment seems immovable. Writes analyst John Nichols, "Though Conyers was a leader in suggesting during the last Congress that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney had committed impeachable offenses, he has been under pressure from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to keep constitutional remedies for executive excesses 'off the table' in this Congress."
"There is no question that Conyers, who voted to keep open the impeachment debate on Nov. 7, has been looking for a way to explore the charges against Cheney," Nichols explains. Exploring FISA abuses may be a way to bring unavoidable charges not only in Cheney's impeachment, but in President Bush's.
That said, I'm with Feingold. I don't think telcoms -- or anyone else, for that matter -- should be excused for lawbreaking just because the White House asked them to commit the crime. The Oval Office is a powerful player, sure. But so is the boardroom of AT&T. The Bush administration might be able to strong-arm someone like you or me into lawbreaking, but the board of a major telcom?
I have grave doubts.
And, for myself, those doubts are enough to make me assume that any assistance they gave bushies in wiretapping was pretty much voluntary. If they did it, they did it because they thought it was a good idea. And they did it knowing it was illegal.
If giving telcoms immunity leads to impeachment, I won't complain about the impeachment. But I won't argue that the ends justified the means. If this is the avenue we take to impeachment, it won't be the avenue to justice. It'll be only partial justice. We'll be punishing one crime, while excusing another. The President and the Vice President are temporary powers -- the telcoms will still be around long after those two are gone.
Technorati tags: politics; law; FISA; wiretaps; Bush; Cheney; Pelosi; Robert Wexler; Luis Gutierrez; Tammy Baldwin; Dennis Kucinich; John Conyers; Impeachment is a tool of justice, not justice in itself