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Political Animal

Barbara, Phone Home

By Brian Morton | Posted 1/30/2008

Got your cell phone handy? Good. Here, try something: Dial (202) 224-4654 and ask the nice person who answers the phone, politely, why Sen. Barbara Mikulski wants to let the phone companies off the hook for breaking the law.

When I say "politely," I mean it-don't be like me, who should know better. This week, during the debate over the extension of provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, I popped off the handle when calling Sen. Mikulski's press secretary. I apologized to her, but perhaps you'd like to know why I got upset.

Last week, the Senate voted on the bill that came out of the Judiciary Committee that dealt with illegal spying by the telecommunication companies, and the good senator-with whom I agree nearly 99 percent of the time-voted against it. The Judiciary bill was the "good" bill-it would have stripped out immunity for the telecoms. The legislation the Senate handled on Monday, Jan. 28, the "bad" bill, has immunity in it, and we'll be seeing what happens this week with it, because the egregious provisions in the FISA Act, known by the Orwellian title of the "Protect America Act," will expire, against the wishes of President Bush.

Here's the big deal about the Protect America Act. Bush pushed it through last August right before the recess, claiming that the United States was under an imminent threat of terrorist attack unless he got the power to eavesdrop on "the terrorists." Except, just as the Bush administration has been unable to distinguish real terrorists from random Arabs swept up in Iraq and Afghanistan and hauled off to Guantanamo, just as the administration hasn't been able to sort Osama bin Laden out from a few thousand holes in the Pakistani ground, they can't sort out "terrorists" from you and me. So they need to eavesdrop on all of our calls-without court orders, probable cause, or anything remotely constitutional like that.

Now, I was irked when the new Democratic Congress was cowed into passing the PAA last year, but now that the time has come for America to start acting like America again-we don't spy on our own citizens-it's shameful that a blue-state senator still sees the same way as a president with a 32 percent approval rating.

We know by now not to trust this president as far as we can throw his Department of Homeland Security. Remember, he didn't even want that department at first, and then he refused to sign the law that brought it into being unless it screwed over the government employee unions, allowing him to fill it to the brim with patronage types loyal to the White House.

On top of that, only last week did the White House agree to let members of the House of Representatives see documents required to give them oversight on the warrantless wiretapping program they're supposed to vote on. This is the way Bush's people have operated for seven years: They will lie to you, and they will withhold any documents that may allow you to see through the lies. Then, years later, when the details leak out, they will say that the circumstances have changed and it's old news.

As for the telecommunication companies, they say that it was their patriotic duty to do what the president asked, and the president says they shouldn't be penalized for helping in the fight against terrorism. That all sounds lovely except for the fact it's a load of crap. The president is not the law, and the telecoms are only in it for themselves, just the way the conservatives' free market says they should be. If you doubt that, ask yourself why it was that when the FBI failed to pay the bills on the wiretaps, the telecoms halted them, no matter the importance of the particular investigation. The Associated Press reported on Jan. 10 that an audit from the Justice Department found that in "at least one case, a wiretap used in a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act investigation 'was halted due to untimely payment.'"

This sad story hasn't fully played out yet, but the particulars are still there. Melissa Schwartz, Sen. Mikulski's hard-working communications person, was far more patient with my hotheaded self than I probably would have been in her case, and she told me that despite voting for more debate on the intelligence bill on Monday, Sen. Mikulski is still in favor of immunity for the phone companies. So still the question remains: Why is the senator of a state whose love for George W. Bush lapsed long ago carrying water for a bill to let his friends off the hook when he asked them to break the law?

You've got the phone number-go see if you can get an answer for yourself. Because as much as I love the good senator, this is one question that has me stumped.

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