US House of Representatives discusses bugging law behind closed doors
Discussion of modernizing the legal basis for bugging international telecommunications to counter terrorism is involving unusual measures in the House of Representatives. US media reported yesterday that a session was being held behind closed doors for the first time in about 25 years, at the request of the Republicans. The press and other members of the public were excluded, and security staff made sure there was no recording equipment in the plenary chamber. No information about the debate has emerged as yet. The last time the House of Representatives went into closed session was in 1983, for a debate about support for paramilitary groups in Nicaragua.
But it has already become known that the Democrats want to introduce a further draft law to revise the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in competition with a draft law previously adopted by the Senate. In contrast to the latter, it contains no provision for retroactive immunity for private companies that helped the US secret service carry out bugging operations without court approval. A vote on the law is expected today.
The New York Times revealed in December 2005 that, without court authorization, the National Security Agency (NSA), assisted by telecoms companies such as AT&T, was monitoring international calls made by US citizens. It became known later that details of phone calls and internet communications even within the USA were also being monitored. Around forty private actions are currently in progress against companies involved in these activities. The US Government wants to invalidate such actions, arguing that these private companies, potentially important helpers of the secret service, could lose their trust in the state. Confidential information relating to the internal security of the USA would also become public.
The Democratic Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers, together with 18 other Democrats, this week issued a comprehensive five-page statement (PDF file) questioning the President's view. They say retroactive immunity is not necessary, and examination of secret and unclassified documents about the government's terrorist surveillance programme has shown no reason to suppose that companies or the secret services will be damaged if the immunity demanded by the President is not approved.