How to Think about Immunity

| Tue Jul. 1, 2008 5:49 PM EDT

As has been widely reported, the House's new FISA bill probably won't be up for a vote in the Senate until after the July 4th holiday. But the bill continues to be subjected to a great deal of criticism on the left for its telecom immunity and surveillance provisions.

And for good reason! The bill allows for bulk collection of data on American citizens without warrants or oversight of almost any kind, and, for all intents and purposes, it requires civil lawsuits against the telecommunications companies that participated in President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program to be thrown out of court. This, many would like us to believe, is some sort of compromise.

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But there's still the matter of the Inspector General reviews. The bill, as it stands right now, requires the IGs of all agencies involved in the wiretapping program to conduct reviews of a number of important things including:

(A) all of the facts necessary to describe the establishment, implementation, product, and use of the product of the Program;

(B) access to legal reviews of the Program and access to information about the Program;

(C) communications with, and participation of, individuals and entities in the private sector related to the Program;

(D) interaction with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and transition to court orders related to the Program; and

(E) any other matters identified by any such Inspector General that would enable that Inspector General to complete a review of the Program, with respect to such Department or element.

The way the law is written, the inspectors general of all the relevant agencies will convene shortly after the law is signed and name a Senate-confirmed designee to head the review process. (Senate-confirmed inspectors general are, at least in theory, more independent than politically appointed inspectors.) Over the course of the next year, each individual inspector general will examine his own agency's role in the warrantless wiretapping program. At the end that term, the reviews will be turned into a comprehensive report and submitted to the relevant congressional committees in both classified and unclassified forms. Though the law lists no penalties for non-compliance (and so it's hard to say why the administration wouldn't just ignore these provisions) it does require the administration to expedite the process, and refrain from obstructing it (by, for example, dragging their feet on providing investigators with security clearances) in its own ways.

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that All Will Be Revealed to the public. But it's not nothing, either. People often scoff at the notion of the administration investigating itself and tend to regard calls for inspector general reports as inherently corrupt... until, of course, some inspector general releases some damning report detailing yet more corruption in the White House. A number of those reports have been written by Glenn Fine—who heads the IG office at the Department of Justice—and, if the bill passes, he will be one of the officials looking into the wiretapping program, and perhaps be in the lead.

This isn't to carry water for congressional Democrats. But it is useful to look at what this provision and the immunity provision, taken together, mean as the bill's written right now. For instance:

  • If the fight over immunity is important to you because you want the telecommunications companies to pay for their crimes, or because you worry about the precedent the government is setting by providing amnesty to corporate criminals, then you're basically out of luck.
  • If the fight over immunity is important to you because you want the ins and outs of the illegal wiretapping program to be revealed in as much detail as possible, though, then all is not lost.

Obviously, it would be foolish to assume that Bush administration officials plan to cooperate with the inspectors general full stop. (You may have already noticed, but they have this tendency is to lie and obfuscate and stall when confronted with any sort of oversight, even oversight from within.) But in this instance they're up against a deadline—and therefore some unusual incentives. If the FISA bill passes, say, a week from now, the White House will have about six months left in office, after which all of these agencies will undergo huge staff changes—particularly huge if Obama wins: no more Michael Mukasey, no more Robert Gates.

And it's precisely for this reason that Bush et al may want to be a bit less intransigent with the inspectors general than they'd normally be, and get the reports out of the way while they're still in office. Because if they do what they normally do and stand athwart the investigation, then a new administration will come in and the whole game changes, potentially drastically. One can imagine John McCain taking a page from Gerald Ford and continuing the obfuscation. But if Barack Obama wins the presidency (obviously still a big if) one can imagine a pretty thoroughgoing investigation and report. So in that sense, the administration might be inclined to be more helpful to the inspectors general than it normally is.

Some Capitol Hill Democrats are a bit more optimistic still. They think that no matter what approach Bush takes with the IG requirements, the reviews will take so long that they'll bleed into a new (hopefully Democratic) administration no matter what.

But many still worry about a white wash. Or that the administration will provide the IGs with juuust enough information that the report will be completed quickly, but with the bare-minimum of disclosure. Possible, and unfortunate. But they might be at least somewhat chastened by the introduction of a new amendment from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) If it passes (yet another big, big "if") it will delay the provision of immunity until 90 days after the IG reports are submitted to Congress.

There are a couple ideas here. The first is that by making telecom immunity contingent upon the submission of the IG reports, Bingaman's basically offering a guarantee that the IG reviews will be complete, and (at least in some cases) reported with some measure of credibility. The comprehensive report might not be a white wash after all. And if it's extremely damning, the (new, more Democratic) Congress could—but probably wouldn't—act in the intervening 90 days to amend the law and strip it of its immunity provision. Likewise, if the IG report does turn out to be weak, Congress could press for more.

Clearly, there are ifs, built on top of ifs, built on top of top of maybes here. But consider an alternative. If both the IG provisions and the immunity provision were to be removed from the FISA legislation in the Senate, and the lawsuits allowed to proceed during the Bush administration, it would set a better legal precedent, but there'd remain the risk that a great deal of information about the illegal wiretapping program would never make it out of the court house. No great victory for those interested in the discovery process. If, on the other hand, the IG and immunity provisions remain, and the Bingaman amendment fails (the most likely scenario), it's a loss for the rule of law, but there's still some chance that at least some of the details of the wiretapping program will be unearthed and made public.

Obviously, the ideal bill would allow the lawsuits to proceed and would require an IG report and would respect the Constitution, but our representatives—both Republicans and Democrats—foreclosed on that option.

Several months ago, the immunity battle was an both an important moral fight and an effective way to derail a different extremely bad bill—one that lacked an IG provision altogether. At this point, with a different bad bill on its way to passage, immunity is pretty clearly not the grounds on which this bill is going to be stopped—if those grounds exist at all. In other words it might be time to learn to stop worrying about immunity and start pressuring Congress not to settle for a bleached IG process. And then to start thinking about how to undo all the other odious aspects of this legislation down the line.

—Brian Beutler is the Washington correspondent for the Media Consortium, a network of progressive media organizations, including Mother Jones.

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