Jewish Journal

Will the Democrats cave on telecom immunity?

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

June 19, 2008 | 2:45 pm

It looks like Congressional Democrats are going to cave in to the Bush administration, this time on telecom immunity for illegal surveillance of Americans.  Maybe public opposition will stop the roll over.  Maybe this is a drama that will end better than it is going right now.  But I wouldn’t bank on it.

You may recall that we found out a few years ago that several telecom companies had agreed to help the administration illegally wiretap Americans.  Numerous lawsuits have been filed to hold them accountable.

The telecoms, big campaign donors, joined with the administration to try to bully Congress into granting them retroactive immunity for actions that they have never fully disclosed.  And media reports now suggest that the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate are going to pass the bill the White House wants.  It will have a fig leaf to hide how pathetic the Congressional resistance was.  If the companies can show a written document that the president or his representatives said it was all legal, then the lawsuits will be dismissed.  I can’t wait until another illegal action by somebody else is justified by such a letter.

It is not impossible that the media reports themselves are part of a White House strategy to build momentum for a legislative victory.  But I am not optimistic.

It was embarrassing watching the Lakers roll over for the Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA finals.  But at least the Celtics were a much better team.  I think one needs to explore the outer realms of psychology to understand how, in an election year that greatly favors the Democrats, with Republicans demoralized, the Democratic party would give in to a president whose latest approval rating is 24%.  All I can imagine is that this party has been beaten down so much on national security for so many years, that they simply have lost the capacity to resist.  I would also not underestimate the impact of telecom campaign donations.

If anybody on Capital Hill were watching the presidential race, they might notice that John McCain is closely tied to the telecoms, and that Barack Obama opposes this deal.  By caving in now, they are doing McCain’s work for him, taking a potentially embarrassing issue off the election table.

It’s particularly disheartening that in a week that saw clear evidence that the administration guided and inspired the program of torture that may well constitute war crimes, the Democrats in Congress may see fit to cave in.  I wonder how the White House will see this.  Democrats love to imagine that Republicans will not attack them on national security if only they get everything they want.  More likely, the White House will feel contemptuous and even more emboldened to do whatever it wants in its waning days.

The thing about courage is that it has great consequences all over the map.  Obama is attacking McCain on terrorism and war issues, rather than quivering in fear of Republican attacks.  If Congress has any hope of keeping the White House from using its final days for dangerous excursions into the further reaches of global warfare, a little courage would go a long way.

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Raphael J. Sonenshein (born 1949 in Nutley, New Jersey) was a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton. He is also served as chairman of the...

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