On Feb. 1, the Bush administration’s broad expansion of its surveillance powers in the hastily-passed Protect America Act are set to expire. Facing a confrontation in the Senate over the inclusion of retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has said he “is likely to push for a one-month extension of the existing law to give Congress and the White House time to work out a compromise.”
But the White House is balking at Reid’s approach, stoking fears of a terrorist attack if it does not get everything they want on a permanent basis. Spokesman Tony Fratto told Congressional Quarterly yesterday that without the immediate passage of legislation, “terrorists” will soon “be free to make phone calls without fear of being surveilled”:
“We’re exactly three weeks away,” he said, “from the date when terrorists can be free to make phone calls without fear of being surveilled by U.S. intelligence agencies”.
Fratto’s contention is flat-out misleading. As CQ’s Keith Perine notes, “intelligence agents would not be instantly hobbled if the law were to expire Feb. 1.” In fact, surveillance authorizations would still “remain in effect until a year after they were issued”:
The existing law allows the National Intelligence director and the attorney general to authorize surveillance aimed at people outside the United States — even if they are communicating with people inside the country — for up to one year, subject to some conditions.
Even after Feb. 1, any such surveillance authorizations would remain in effect until a year after they were issued.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who favors denying retroactive immunity, says the White House is creating a “false choice” by claiming that “if you want to give all the power to the president, you’re in favor of America” and if not, you’re “in favor of the terrorists.”
UPDATE: In a statement, People for the American Way say Fratto’s claim is “a bold-faced lie.”