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The Democrats' Fisa Reform Strategy

Like Glenn Greenwald and Atrios, I'm a bit puzzled as to why Harry Reid seems determined to stack the deck against opponents of the FISA reform bill granting retroactive immunity to telecom companies that cooperated with the administration--even refusing to honor the "hold" Chris Dodd requested on the legislation, all while recognizing, for instance, Lindsey Graham's "hold" on the CIA interrogation bill. The only rationale I can think of is that maybe Reid knows the bill has to be reconciled with the House version of FISA reform anyway, which doesn't include immunity, so his goal is to pass some version of the bill as quickly as possible, knowing that the one whose cloture motion passed the Senate today isn't necessarily going to resemble the one that actually winds up on the president's desk.

That said, I think Julian Sanchez provides some needed perspective on the issue. I have mixed feelings about granting immunity, but I don't quite understand why it's become the public focal point of the FISA reform debate, while no one seems to be as interested in the actual constraints on surveillance:

While media attention has focused largely on the question of immunity for telecom firms, the additional limitations on surveillance contained in the Judiciary Committee's version of the bill are, arguably, at least as significant. That bill would explicitly bar "bulk" or "vacuum cleaner" surveillance of international telecom traffic that is not directed at a particular person or telephone number. It would require individualized FISA court review whenever the collection of an American's communications became a "significant purpose" of an investigation, whether or not that person was a "target" of the investigation. And it would provide for a congressional audit of past extrajudicial surveillance by the National Security Agency.

Indeed, I'm inclined to think a good strategy for Democrats here would have been to appear to put up a big fight over the immunity issue, but then eventually relent on that front in order to get the administration to agree to sensible requirements for FISA court review of surveillance of Americans. If there's one cause for which the Bush administration might be willing to give up some power, it's saving big business from lawsuits.

--Josh Patashnik