In a display that revealed just how far the GOP has strayed from its original purpose, Republican members of the House of Representatives staged a walkout Thursday after House Democrats refused to bring up for a vote a bill to extend the controversial Protect America Act that authorized the Bush administration to implement electronic surveillance on suspected terrorists' telephone and Internet communications with Americans without court warrants.
Bush objected to extending the Protect America Act unless it contained a provision shielding telecommunications companies from invasion-of-privacy lawsuits stemming from the companies' turning over their customer records to the government without first requiring the government to produce court warrants.
That standard is clearly required under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution -- which a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1972 the government must follow; if it doesn't, then the government is breaking the law -- period.
Bush Seeks to Shield Lawbreaking Telecoms
By failing to require the government to produce court warrants before turning over their customer records, the telecoms violated their customers' right to privacy under both the Fourth Amendment and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.
For its part, the government demanded the telecoms and other companies turn over their customer records not with court warrants, but with so-called "national security letters,' or NSLs, issued by the Justice Department. By doing so, the government violated the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.
Once served with the NSLs, the telecoms were barred under a provision of the USA Patriot Act from disclosing to customers under investigation that their records were being sought by the government. That provision of the Patriot Act was struck down last summer as an unconstitutional breach of the First and Fourth Amendments by a federal district court judge in New York.
As a result of the court's ruling, there are now approximately 40 lawsuits brought by citizens and consumer groups against telecommunications companies that enabled the government to illegally eavesdrop on Americans' phone and Internet communications.
Given the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy, lawsuits against the telecoms are the only way to obtain disclosure about the facts from the government. Information being sought includes details about the origins of the program.
The administration admitted that the sweeping domestic surveillance originated in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. However, declassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive and testimony that is part of these lawsuits suggest the National Security Agency program was put into place shortly after Bush took office -- months before 9/11.
GOP Bullying Tactics Backfire in House
The White House and Capitol Hill Republicans went on a public-relations offensive in a naked attempt to bully Democrats into putting off the requirement that the government go to the FISA Court for warrants. While Senate Democrats, who hold a precarious one-seat majority blinked, House Democrats, with a much firmer 32-seat majority, stood their ground and refused to budge.
That-- combined with a vote by House Democrats to hold two White House aides in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys for allegedly political reasons -- prompted House Republicans to stage their walkout.