Americans are going to have to start watching what they say on the telephone. Again.
On July 9, the Senate approved an overhaul of the federal government’s surveillance powers which will dramatically expand the executive branch’s ability to spy on individuals at home and abroad that it suspects have involvement with terrorism.
The 69-28 vote officially put an end to a five-month stalemate on the issue that started last February when the Senate allowed the previous temporary surveillance measure to expire after mounting criticism from Democrats that the policy was a violation of citizens’ privacy rights.
The tensions leading to this stalemate started nearly two and a half years ago when the New York Times reported on President Bush’s surveillance program in December of 2005 — the first time the public was given information as to its existence, even though it had been implemented immediately following the September 11 attacks.
While the wiretapping itself was troubling enough for many, the real problem with the initial program was that it granted the National Security Agency the authority to spy without any sort of court order or additional oversight.
Of course, even though they had the authority to do so, the NSA could not realistically have executed the program without help. This help came from the very people providing the telephone service the NSA was monitoring, a fact that has opened the door for about 40 lawsuits against complicit telecommunications companies, according to the New York Times.
The new surveillance law, however, put an end to these lawsuits by granting legal immunity to any and all companies that helped the NSA carry out wiretapping investigations.
Many Democrats, including presumptive presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, have been on the record for months against any policy that would have allowed those companies to shirk their liability. And yet many, including Sen. Obama, voted for the bill.
So how is it then, if Democrats both opposed the bill on the principle of privacy rights and stood against immunity for telecom companies, that this bill passed? The simple answer is that to vote against it, especially in an elections year, would be political suicide.
For almost seven years now the Democrats have had to work double time to prove to voters that they are “tough on terror.” Recently, however, taking a stand against terror, as it is practiced by the Bush administration, is increasingly coming into conflict with something Dems tend to support — the preservation of civil liberties such as the right to habeas corpus and the freedom of speech and association.
In an election year, however, everyone in politics seems to sacrifice some principles, and in this case, so have the Democrats in order to fight off claims of the party being “soft” on Homeland Security, as has been the rallying cry of Republicans since September 11.
Wiretapping, as it is a relatively harmless intrusion to most citizens unless, in the words of Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., “you have al-Qaeda on your speed dial,” was likely seen as an appropriate compromise to the otherwise strong line against civil rights intrusions in the name of public safety.
Unfortunately for Democrats, one menial gesture is not going to fight off more than half a decade of Republican rhetoric.
They’ll learn soon enough.
Editorials Editor Sean Reed is a senior political science major. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.