Wow, they really did it.
Defying expectations, the House adjourned for recess Thursday and will let the Protect America Act expire tomorrow. Unwilling to try and iron out differences between their bill and a version passed this week by the Senate, lawmakers will take up the thorny issues of telecom liability and oversight of intelligence surveillance at a later date. I don’t think anyone would have predicted that in a blinking contest with the White House, Nancy Pelosi would emerge the victor. But here we are.
Senior intelligence officials, including the director of national intelligence, have been making the media and talk show rounds. They’re being challenged on the question of whether intelligence activities will cease when the PAA expires. Surveillance already in place will continue, but the intelligence community will have to go through the “old” process of obtaining warrants if they want to start new surveillance. Those rules will be dictated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), barring any orders to the contrary by the president—and don’t count that out.
The big question, though, seems to be whether or not the telecom companies assisting in any new surveillance think they will have legal protections going forward. I have pinged some national security lawyers on this, and the consensus is that they would have immunity for whatever they’re doing now under PAA, and that said immunity would continue until those activities stop, regardless of whether the law is in effect. (Surveillance authorized and conducted under PAA can continue uninterrupted for one year.) But presumably any new surveillance would not have immunity, since it would be taken up under FISA.
Think of it this way. It’s like giving a high-school student a permanent hall pass during third period French, but not during fourth period chemistry. The companies will find themselves now in the position of operating different kinds of surveillance under different standards and with different protections. Democrats have a point that letting PAA expire will not bring the government’s intelligence efforts to a halt. But letting the law expire does nothing to clarify the rules of the road.