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Will Fear-Mongering Work, Again? Senate Democrats Poised to Fold to Cheney on FISA

Senate Democrats Poised to Fold to Cheney on FISA

by MARJORIE COHN

After a January 24 debate in the Senate on amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Senate appears ready to capitulate once again to the Bush administration’s agenda of sacrificing liberty for questionable security.

On the day before Congress was slated to take up this issue, Dick Cheney addressed the Heritage Foundation, the most influential right-wing think tank. He was given a thunderous reception, to which he quipped, "I hold an office that has only one constitutional duty – presiding over the Senate and casting tie-breaking votes." But the most powerful vice president in this nation’s history was about to strong-arm Congress into doing the administrations’ bidding.

Invoking the memory of September 11, 2001 twelve times, Cheney said it was "urgent" that Congress update the FISA law immediately and permanently. Notwithstanding the administration’s well-known violations of FISA months before 9/11, Cheney claimed they had used "every legitimate tool at our command to protect the American people against another attack." He omitted the illegal tools the administration has admitted using, that is, Bush’s so-called "Terrorist Surveillance Program" and a massive data mining program. FISA makes it a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison, for the executive to conduct a wiretap without statutory authorization. The TSP has been used to target not just the terrorists, but also critics of administration policies, particularly the war in Iraq.

Although Cheney repeatedly linked amending FISA with protecting America, there is no evidence Bush’s secret spying program has made us any safer. Indeed, in 2006, the Washington Post reported that nearly all of the thousands of Americans’ calls that had been intercepted revealed nothing pertinent to terrorism. About the same time, the New York Times quoted a former senior federal prosecutor, who described tips from intelligence officials involved in the surveillance. "The information was so thin and the connections were so remote, that they never led to anything, and I never heard any follow-up," he said.

In his speech to the Heritage Foundation, Cheney aimed to bully Congress into making the so-called "Protect America Act of 2007" permanent. On the eve of Congress’s Labor Day recess last year, the Bush administration had rammed that act through a Congress still fearful of appearing soft on terror. It was a 6-month fix to the 1978 FISA, which didn’t anticipate that foreign intelligence communications would one day run through Internet providers in the United States. But the temporary law, which expires February 1, went further than simply fixing that glitch in FISA; it granted immunity to telecommunications companies that turned over our telephone and Internet communications to the government.

Permanent immunity, retroactive to 9/11, for the telecommunications companies is the apparently most critical concern of the Bush administration, whose primary constituency has been the mega-corporations. Although Cheney touted these companies as patriotic partners in the administration’s "war on terror," they are breaking several U.S. laws, including FISA itself, Title III, the Communications Act, and the Stored Communications Act, as well as the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution. Indeed, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it, "the real heroes are the companies that refused to help [the administration], like Verizon Wireless" and Quest Communications.

Cheney quoted Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who described the need for these companies to defend against litigation as "an enormous burden." What he really meant is that defending the roughly 40 pending lawsuits is cutting into their enormous profits.

The House of Representatives passed a bill without immunity for the telecoms. But in a 60-36 vote, the Senate rejected a proposal from the Senate Judiciary Committee that omitted immunity and contained important limits on wiretapping powers. Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and Democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were not present for the vote.

Senator Christopher Dodd has indicated his intent to filibuster, or prevent a Senate vote, on a version of the bill that includes immunity. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid apparently now supports the filibuster. The Senate is scheduled to vote on whether to proceed to a final Senate vote on this issue on January 28. Three of the Democrats who voted against the SJC proposal must be persuaded to change their votes, and Clinton and Obama must follow suit in order to maintain the filibuster and prevent the Senate from adopting a bill that includes immunity and omits vital civil liberties safeguards.

Here are the Democrats who voted against the SJC proposal:

Bayh (202) 224-5623
Carper (202) 224-2441
Inouye (202) 224-3934
Johnson (202) 224-5842
Landrieu (202)224-5824
McCaskill (202) 224-6154
Mikulski (202) 224-4654
Nelson (FL) (202) 224-5274
Nelson (NE) (202) 224-6551
Pryor (202) 224-2353
Salazar (202) 224-5852

John Edwards, the only Democratic presidential candidate willing to effectively take on the corporations, should weigh in against immunity for the telecoms and challenge his competitors to do the same. This is a golden opportunity for Clinton and Obama to exercise leadership on a crucial issue. Our civil liberties and privacy rights are at stake.

MARJORIE COHN is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and president of the National Lawyers Guild. She is the author of Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law