Congress Ignores Fear-Mongering. World Doesn’t End

The Democratic leadership in the House has called the president’s bluff and stood up for the rule of law. Ryan Singel has the details:

The Protect America Act, a temporary but expansive warrantless spying bill passed by Congress last summer, will likely expire Saturday at midnight, a casualty of a battle between President Bush and House Democrats over amnesty for phone companies that aided his secret, warrantless spying program and how much of that program should be legalized. The House leadership announced there will be no more votes before the long President’s Day legislative break.

The bill’s expiration is largely symbolic, but demonstrates that House Democrats are willing to fight Bush on anti-terrorism policies, where fear-mongering rhetoric had previously cowed their opposition.

One of the most interesting things about the last 24 hours is the subtle shift in rhetoric. The New York Times wrote today that “The lapsing of the deadline would have little practical effect on intelligence gathering” — an accurate statement, but one that most people were missing a few days ago. Even conservative pundits such as David Freddoso started hedging their previously sweeping claims about the dire consequences of letting the PAA expire:

If the president does not sign the bill before Saturday, then we revert to the previous FISA law. The feds will be able to continue certain ongoing terrorist monitoring activities, but they cannot initiate new ones. (It becomes easier to start up a terror cell on Saturday.)

Freddoso is not insinuating, as his colleague did, that all surveillance everywhere in the world will grind to a halt after the PAA expires. But Freddoso’s version is still misleading. The Bush administration can initiate new terrorist monitoring activities after the PAA expires. It just has to get a FISA warrant, the same way it did in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006. Indeed, Bush himself praised the changes Congress made to FISA in the wake of the September 11 attacks, noting that they “will allow surveillance of all communications used by terrorists, including e-mails, the Internet, and cell phones” and makes the intelligences community “able to better meet the technological challenges posed by this proliferation of communications technology.” If we were able to get by with those provisions for nearly six years, surely we’ll be OK living under them again for a couple of weeks.