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Judiciary Mulls Taking Up Separate FISA Bill

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Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) criticized the White House conditions as “unacceptable” and noted the administration already has ignored an Aug. 20 deadline to comply with committee subpoenas for the documents.

“If the Administration wants our support for immunity, it should comply with the subpoenas, provide the information, and justify its request,” Leahy and Specter wrote in a letter to White House counsel Fred Fielding. “As we have both said, it would be wrongheaded to ask Senators to consider immunity without their being informed about the legal justifications purportedly excusing the conduct being immunized.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) backed up Leahy and Specter on Monday, saying Democrats would not blindly agree to provide immunity just to get access to documents they have been requesting for years.

“I must say in the most emphatic terms — the administration must turn over all the information ... needed to the Senate Judiciary Committee and to the relevant House committees to do their business — and they must do so immediately,” Reid said on the floor.

Of course, Intelligence Democrats flatly denied any quid pro quo when it came to the bill they passed last week. Rockefeller spokeswoman Wendy Morigi explained that the chairman already had decided to include limited immunity for telecommunications companies before the White House granted the panel “read-only” access to documents related to the spy program. Morigi said Rockefeller had refused to hold a markup of his bill until he saw the documents.

Even so, Rockefeller’s bill attempts to make everyone — including the White House — happy by allowing a broad intelligence-gathering program to go forward, adding some recognition of civil liberties for American surveillance targets and inserting rigorous judicial and Congressional oversight.

If Judiciary doesn’t act on anything, the panel could forfeit its right to weigh in and the Rockefeller measure would proceed as-is to the Senate floor. (There’s no guarantee Reid would bring it up if that happened, however.)

“If [Judiciary members] want to stay in the game, they’re going to have to mark something up,” pointed out one civil liberties activist.

If Judiciary does take it up, two Intelligence panel Democrats who also sit on Judiciary — Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) — may seek changes even though they already voted for the Rockefeller measure.

A Whitehouse spokeswoman said the freshman Senator is concerned the bill does not ensure that law enforcement agencies properly handle and dispose of information on innocent Americans that may be collected in the surveillance dragnet authorized by the bill. Whitehouse wants the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to assess the government’s compliance with procedures designed to minimize the collection and dissemination of innocent Americans’ information.

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