Dear Members of Congress:
The unprecedented surveillance of American citizens without a warrant is far too important an issue to be decided in a matter of days. Common Cause urges you to vote in favor of H.R. 5349 to extent the Protect America Act of 2007 for 21 days in order to resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
The strong and well-founded opposition in the House of Representatives to blanket immunity for some telecommunications companies that knowingly broke the law should not be brushed aside. For too long, Congress has been bullied by an Executive branch willing to disregard the Constitutional rights of Americans in the name of national security.
We agree with Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) who said yesterday, "So this debate should not be framed as the issue of the hour; rather, it is about the principle behind it, and that is the rule of law. The power of courts to decide the legality and illegality of actions is so deeply imbedded in our Constitution, so deeply imbedded in the fabric of how we conduct ourselves, that it ought not to be the subject of a partisan discussion and debate."
There are profound implications for the decision to retroactively grant telecommunications companies sweeping immunity from litigation arising from the decision to share private information with the government without a warrant. This violates existing civil and criminal law.
Currently, citizens and consumers are trying to advance their rights in court, some seeking damages, and some seeking a simple declaration that the activity was illegal and a court order stopping it from happening in the future. Killing all the pending cases will deprive consumers the opportunity to assert their own privacy rights before a neutral arbiter, which had been statutorily guaranteed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It also shields not only the telecommunications industry, but the government actors that induced them to break the law in the first place.
Congress needs to follow the established procedures for resolving differences in legislation passed by the House and Senate in conference committee, especially for issues of great import. We urge you to extend the existing FISA legislation in order to allow for that process.
Bob Edgar, President and CEO, Common Cause
Sarah Dufendach, Vice President for Legislative Affairs, Common Cause