Amnesty for warrantless spying?

Arlen Specter always comes around.

Published June 9, 2006 1:27PM (EDT)

When we reported Thursday on Arlen Specter's spat with Dick Cheney over the vice president's attempts to scuttle hearings on the NSA telephone database program, we predicted that Specter would do what he usually does: rattle about for a bit and then get on board with whatever the White House wanted him to do.

Case in point: Specter's about-face on the president's warrantless spying plan.

Back in February, when Specter was still in his rattling-about phase on warrantless spying, he proposed legislation that would have required the administration -- even more explicitly than the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act already does -- to obtain a warrant whenever it listens in on calls starting or ending in the United States. The legislation Specter had in mind would have required the administration to explain to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court why it believed that at least one of the participants in the calls to be monitored "will be the foreign power or agent of a foreign power specified ... or a person who has had communication with the foreign power or agent." In addition, the administration would have had to provide the court with a "detailed description of the nature of the information sought" and "an estimate of the number of communications to be intercepted."

As Walter Pincus reports in the Washington Post today, Specter unveiled a new proposal Thursday -- one designed to gain support of Republicans who weren't too keen on his first one. This time around, Specter wants to give the administration the "option" of seeking FISA warrants for its telephone surveillance, and the legislation he's proposing with Republican Sen. Jon Kyl would go out of its way to say that it should not be construed "to limit the constitutional authority of the president to gather foreign intelligence information or monitor the activities and communications of any person reasonably believed to be associated with a foreign enemy of the United States."

In his letter to Cheney earlier this week, Specter said that the warrantless spying program is a "flat violation" of existing law. Should anyone be held accountable for that? Not under the new Specter proposal. As Pincus writes, Specter's new plan would grant "blanket amnesty to anyone who authorized warrantless surveillance under presidential authority, a provision that seems to ensure that no one would be held criminally liable if the current program is found illegal under present law."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Arlen Specter D-pa. Dick Cheney Espionage