The FISA Bill: Why Did Four of NY's House Democrats Fold?

By Tatyana Gulko and Amanda Stutt

You've got to wonder, after the controversially amended FISA bill's smarmy slide through the system, how strong New York City's Democratic members of Congress's convictions really are.

Though Democratic Senators from New York and eight members of the New York City Congressional delegation both voted against the bill, four other NYC Congressional Democrats have swung the other way.

The new FISA bill will provide retroactive immunity for the telecom companies that participated in the National Security Agency wiretapping program approved by President Bush. The four Democrats that voted in favor had originally opposed retroactive immunity for the telecom companies that helped Bush place Americans under surveillance. And ironically, New York City Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler led the opposition to the bill.

On March 14, Gregory Meeks, Joseph Crowley, Eliot Engel and Gary Ackerman, all of whom represent districts that include the Bronx and Queens, voted against retroactive immunity in an amendment that passed in The House. But when the June 20th vote for the FISA compromise bill came around, they decided that compromising meant conceding.

One plus is that Democrats did manage to force Bush into retreating from his unwarranted surveillance position, but the prime negative is that the added immunity for the telecoms means that all those big nasty lawsuits that had been haunting Verizon and AT&T for aiding and abetting the stalking of Americans disappear in a puff of smoke.

There are people who, after it was determined that the phone calls to Mom and late night chat room visits did not constitute 'terrorist' activity are understandably upset and called a lawyer. Only now there is no chance for targeted consumers to seek accountability from the phone companies they trusted to protect their privacy.

So why did New York City's four Democratic representatives change their minds? While that's unclear, it turns out that telecom companies Verizon and AT&T were doing some serious schmoozin' and campaign contributin' with these four Congressman.

What won them over? Was it fancy dinners, really good scotch? The public may likely never know because the telecom companies' lobbying campaigns were largely kept out of the public eye and maintained behind closed-door status.

ACLU's Washington Bureau chief Caroline Fredrickson said "telecom companies
used private meetings, fundraisers, and big dinners to sway the congressional vote. They have spent huge amounts of money."

"There is a climate where the telecommunications lobbyists have a lot of access because they spread a lot of cash around," she said.

Fredrickson sees what a decisive role money played in the June 20th vote in the House. "You can even see where Democrats changed their votes in support of this legislation," she said. "They admit that the provisions that are in the bill are immunity. [It's] pure and simple".

And though we don't know exactly how they were schmoozed, we have the numbers:

Over the past five years, Gary Ackerman got close to $30,000 in campaign contributions from Verizon and AT&T, Gregory Meeks: over $40,000. Joseph Crowley: close to $30,000, and Eliot Engel got the most cake at over $60,000.

A study done by Maplight.org showed that that the telecoms gave almost $5,000 more on average to members of the House who had voted for the FISA bill on June 20th, as opposed to those who voted no.

But even with this cold hard cash on the line, members of Congress remain shielded by their press secretaries and reluctant to admit that their June 20th vote had granted immunity.

This is "not a vote against or for immunity," claimed Angela Barranco, a spokeswoman for Crowley, explaining that the bill achieved "balance," and that there were "pressing needs" that "needed to be met."

Crowley released this: "Democratic leadership has made clear to President Bush that we will not reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as it currently exists because of willful misuse."

"I supported passage of this measure because it maintains our ability to track terrorists while adding in much-needed protections for the civil liberties of American citizens. There is no doubt that the bill is not perfect, but it is moves us in the right direction. The next step will be to elect Barack Obama to the White House so the Democratic-led Congress has a partner in its efforts to protect every American's safety and civil rights."

It's not only the veil of the clever PR spin that most politicians can't live without that has given Crowley's comeback some solid ground. Obama's support for the FISA amendment gives Democrats the "I'm protecting America from terrorists" crutch.

As Newsweek's Jonathan Alter said in his interview with MSNBC'S Keith Olbermann, Obama would "look weak if [he was not] taking actions that seem to be securing the United States against terrorists."

And it's hard to argue with that as anyone who has seen McCain's pitbull-esque attack on Obama, aka his supporters running his picture next to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's. But we digress.

Meeks didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ackerman was on vacation.

Engel wouldn't talk either. He did say in a March 18 press release that the legislation he planned to vote for "would not confer retroactive on telecommunications carriers that may have participated in the president's warrantless surveillance program."

Hmm. Wonder why he didn't call us back.

But interestingly, New York Democratic senators stood their ground on the
immunity issue.

Senator Chuck Schumer voted against the bill. Schumer told Tom Wrobleski of the Staten Island Advance that "telephone companies did something wrong. I don't think should just get blanket immunity."

Schumer also admitted he doesn't have "any feelings of peace or solace about how vigilant they [telecom companies] were about protecting individuals' privacy."

Senator Hillary Clinton made her stance clear in her statements in January: "I continue to believe that a grant of retroactive immunity is wrong, and I have cosponsored Senator Dodd's amendment to remove that provision from the bill".

Connecticut Senator Dodd was so angry about telecom immunity he bellowed on the floor of the Senate, "I have fought long and hard against retroactive immunity, because I believe, quite simply, it is an abandonment of the rule of law…it is bad policy and sets a terrible precedent."

"None of our fellow Americans will have their day in court. What they will have is a government that has sanctioned lawlessness".

And so Fredrickson of the ACLU believes Congress is to blame.

"Our fight was really in the House," she said.

The idea that the same leadership that allowed the Protect America Act to expire and all the strong statements that were made against immunity ultimately ended up meaning nothing frustrates Fredrickson.

"Once the house leadership knuckled under the president that was kind of the end of the game," she concluded.

"Congress definitely failed."

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