Senate Democrats

Reid: FISA Bill Lacks Accountability; Democrats Will Continue To Work To Give Intelligence Professionals Tools They Need

Washington, DC—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the following statement today on the floor of the U.S. Senate before voting against the FISA bill.  Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:

“I voted against cloture of the FISA bill now before us, and I will vote no on final passage.

“The Senate’s debate on FISA has made the Intelligence Committee’s bill somewhat better by adding a number of protections from the Judiciary Committee’s version.  The Senate adopted amendments offered by Senators Kennedy, Feingold and Whitehouse that improve title I of the bill, concerning the procedures that will be used to conduct this kind of surveillance in the future.

“But the Senate rejected amendments to strike or modify title II, concerning immunity for telecommunications companies who may have broken the law by abiding the White House’s request for warrantless wiretaps on American citizens.  I believe that the White House and any companies who broke the law must be held accountable.  In their unyielding efforts to expand Presidential powers, President Bush and Vice-President Cheney created a system to conduct wiretapping – including on American citizens – outside the bounds of longstanding federal law.

“The President could have taken the simple step of requesting new authority from Congress.  If he made a persuasive case to us, we would have been more than receptive to passing an appropriate amendment to FISA.  After all, Congress has repeatedly amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to reflect new technology and the legitimate needs of the intelligence community.  But whether out of convenience, incompetence, or outright disdain for the rule of law, the Administration chose to ignore Congress and ignore the Constitution.

“The White House should bear responsibility for this reckless disdain for the rule of law.  But it also appears that many companies followed the Administration’s orders without regard for our laws, our privacy or basic common sense.

“I always have and always will support giving our intelligence community the tools they need to collect intelligence on terrorists and other foreign targets.  We always have and always will need the help of the private sector to protect our country.  When companies comply with legal and constitutional directives to support intelligence and law enforcement activities, they have no reason to fear.  But the requirements and obligations they have for protecting the rights of American citizens and protecting the Constitution under FISA are perfectly clear.

“According to press reports, at least one company – Qwest Communications – refused the White House’s request.  The others had opportunities to do the same.  As far as we know, they chose not to.

“If the Senate had voted today to reject amnesty, we would have sent a message that no one is above accountability and no one is above the law.  If we had rejected amnesty, we would have sent a message that fighting terrorism does not require us to sacrifice our fundamental rights.  I was disappointed that the Senate rejected today’s amendments opposing immunity.

“But even though their efforts were unsuccessful, all Americans owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to two outstanding and principled Senators, Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd.  They stood up to the Administration.  They stood up for accountability.  Despite today’s votes, there is no doubt in my mind that history will prove them right.  Millions of Americans joined this effort.  Win or lose, their voices were heard and their efforts made a difference.

“If the Senate votes for final passage of the FISA bill, we must decide what will come next.  Two weeks ago, in the run-up to the State of Union Address, all we heard from the President, the Vice President and Senate Republicans was that urgent passage of a FISA bill was critical to our national security. 

“But then Senate Republicans spent most of last week refusing to allow any votes on FISA amendments, slow-walking the bill as part of a strategy to jam the House.  A week and a half ago, as the February 1 sunset to the Protect America Act approached, we passed a 15-day extension.  This would have allowed two weeks for negotiations with the House, which even then would have been somewhat rushed.

“Unfortunately, the White House has been convinced that if they drag this process out long enough, there will not be enough time to negotiate a bill with the House.  The White House is convinced they can force the House to pass exactly the bill they want.  I believe it is wrong for the White House to do this, and I believe it is unfair to the House of Representatives.

“Due to months of White House foot-dragging, the relevant House committees have only just gotten the documents related to immunity.  They need some time to review and analyze them.  We must not let this critical issue be resolved by White House bullying. 

“I plan to ask unanimous consent for an extension, in order to allow sufficient time for negotiations with the House.  I hope that with this extra time, the conference committee can make further improvements to this critical bill.

“Why do we need to improve the bill?  Richard Clarke – a national security advisor to Presidents Reagan, the senior Bush and Clinton – said it well in a recent op-ed: ‘FISA has and still works as the most valuable mechanism for monitoring our enemies.  In order to defeat the violent Islamist extremists who do not believe in human rights, we need not give up the civil liberties, constitutional rights and protections that generations of Americans fought to achieve.’

“The Bush-Cheney White House continues to sell us a false choice between security and liberty.  I reject that choice.  This is America.  We are Americans.  We can and must have both.”