Michael Ratner on President Bush’s latest press conference
ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER: President Bush faced the press this week chastising Congress for not passing the Protect America bill. Congress is hesitant to sign the legislation without adequate debate. We spoke with Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City. President Bush earlier this morning gave a press conference in which he mentioned the ongoing political wrangling in connection with FISA.
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: It actually was in my mind less like a press conference than an entry into what will be the partisan contest between McCain as the Republican candidate and Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, but most likely Obama at this point. He took on the electronic surveillance issue, he took on the Iraq war issue, he took on the economy, and he took on Cuba, and particularly Obama’s point that he would even meet with Raúl Castro. So he took on all those issues in a very partisan way. Some of those issues are very close to him anyway. But it was pretty clearly aimed at Barack Obama. The electronic surveillance issue dominated at least a fairly large portion of the press conference. The bill to authorize a broader electronic surveillance on American people, citizens, as well as permanent residents, as well as foreigners, is stalled, essentially, in the current Democratic Congress. One version passed the House of Representatives, but that version did not give immunity to the telecoms, the telephone companies that authorized electronic surveillance and used their equipment to be able to do it illegally and contrary to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that was in place prior to 9/11 and is still in place today. They cooperated with the US government, even though it was fairly clearly completely illegal to do it. They essentially wiretapped, electronically surveilled e-mails, telephone conversations of people living in the United States.
NKWETA: So, Michael, I’m going to roll a clip for you right now on President Bush’s speech.
White House press conference
February 28, 2008
GEORGE W. BUSH, US PRESIDENT: FISA was out of date. It did not allow us to track foreign terrorists on foreign soil quickly and effectively.
RATNER: Well, it’s misleading and it’s lying. The current law, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the president to actually electronically surveil the communications of people living in foreign countries without even a warrant. You can do that. It’s only when it comes into the United States and that it might affect an American citizen that you actually have to go to this special court. What this is really about is not just immunity for the telecoms, but it’s about the question of whether the president needs to go to the Foreign Intelligence Court, the special secret court, to get a warrant when an American or a permanent resident of the United States is on one end of the phone call. And that’s what he doesn’t want to do. The law does require it, that if I’m wiretapped talking to a foreigner, he needs to go get a warrant from the court. Now, in an emergency situation, even the current law allows for three days’ wiretapping without a warrant, and then he can go to the court. So it’s utterly misleading to say somehow that not passing this new law that the president wants is going to somehow affect the surveillance of so-called “foreign terrorists.”
NKWETA: The logic of his argument is the fact that this law was amended and there was given an extension in order to allow the Bush administration to go ahead with warrantless wiretaps. If it was good then, why is it not good now?
RATNER: You know, it should have never been good to begin with. The Congress, unfortunately, and the Republican Congress, when they passed the so-called Protect America Act, which was good for six months, to essentially give the president authority he wanted that went beyond the law at the time was a Republican-dominated Congress. So now he’s running into a little bit of the buzz-saw of the Democratic Congress, and you actually have some Democrats in the Congress standing up for the rights under our Constitution and our laws, which is that he’d have to go to a neutral magistrate before you can start wiretapping, electronically surveilling, looking at e-mails of Americans living in the United States or permanent residents living in the United States. The whole argument to me—I have to tell you it’s shocking to me that what he’s saying here is that we have to give these telecoms a free pass, because they cooperated with the government in essentially an illegal program of wiretapping American citizens. Now, it seems to me, right off the bat, that’s not up to Congress; that’s up to the courts. And the courts will decide those cases. Congress doesn’t decide under our system cases that are in the courts, or at least they shouldn’t. And that’s what the president’s trying to do.
NKWETA: So is this just political posturing right now, at this point?
RATNER: One point the president made in the speech was that unless you give these telecoms immunity, they’re going to be less willing to help in the future. They should be less willing to help in a criminal conspiracy to violate the wiretapping law. They will be, I’m sure, very willing to help in wiretapping or electronically surveilling people who are within the law and who get warrants. That’s what we want. We want those telecoms less willing to violate the law and be in a conspiracy with the government to violate the rights of Americans.
NKWETA: So is this about the Bush administration trying to protect itself?
RATNER: This is about the Bush administration trying to protect itself, make sure that its own people who violated the law don’t eventually get indicted and/or fined for it. But it’s also really about underlying—the whole question of checks and balances in the US system, of whether the president is essentially a king under the law or whether he’s a king above the law.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.