Yesterday, the should-have-been scandal of President Bush’s warrant-less wiretapping program reached its sad and anticlimactic conclusion. The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 passed easily. It retroactively legalizes the warrant-less eavesdropping on US citizens that has occurred under the Bush administration since 2005. The act effectively grants immunity to the telecom companies who complied with the President’s program in spite of explicit privacy laws designed to prevent precisely such intrusion, and those whose privacy was intruded upon will no longer be able to sue the companies that handed over their data.
According to the previous FISA act, the president had to seek approval in a FISA court before proceeding with wiretapping. That court has granted almost every single warrant it has been asked for; the question, then, is why the administration decided it was necessary to skip that crucial step. The administration has not yet produced a single piece of evidence that this program actually helped to prevent any attacks. Moreover, the very Congress that is voting to legalize the whole affair has not been given details regarding exactly what transpired or why the government failed to get the easily-acquired warrants; they are voting to look the other way without even knowing exactly what they are condoning.
The only thing more frightening than this amendment is the lack of a public outcry against it. The move of the government to legalize warrant-less wiretapping should be a big deal, but it barely seems to be causing ripples. After the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Ben Franklin was asked whether the new government was a monarchy or a republic; his immortal response was "A republic, if you can keep it." Here’s hoping that the American public wakes up and regains the nerve to do what it takes to keep it.