High-wire act
by John Upton
Oct 12, 2006 | 564 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, said at a May debate that intelligence agents should obtain surveillance warrants before monitoring phone calls. Less than five months later, he voted to allow warrantless wiretapping.

“I support the president in his efforts to stop another terrorist attack in this country — I fully support that,” said Pombo during a May 15 debate against primary opponents Pete McCloskey and Tom Benigno at Williams Middle School. “I do believe that either when it was monitoring of phone calls or amassing a list of where people call, even though it is specifically targeted at people that are believed to be associated with terrorist groups, that it does have to go through the normal process, that (intelligence officers) do have to get a warrant issued before they take advantage of having that opportunity.”

Pombo was one of 232 members of Congress to vote in favor of the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act on Sept. 29, which permits the president’s program of warrantless phone and e-mail surveillance of U.S. citizens. The new rules are backdated by the bill to Sept. 11, 2001.

Pombo told the Tracy Press that his vote was consistent with his statement.

“In some cases of national security emergencies, the bill does allow for a delay in obtaining a warrant, but still requires the notification of the Intelligence Committees and the (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court,” said Pombo by e-mail. “It is completely consistent with my feeling that the president should not be able to conduct these activities without checks and balances from the other two branches of government.”

The president may indefinitely authorize electronic surveillance, including telephone, e-mail and Internet tapping within the United States without a court order following an attack or before a suspected attack against the United States. The president must notify the court and Congress of the surveillance.

San Francisco-based lawyer Jim Dempsey, who opposes the bill and has testified before Congress three times this year for privacy advocates the Center for Democracy

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Technology, said there is more to the bill than Pombo acknowledged.

Under the bill, which is waiting on a Senate vote, “when the government is not targeting a particular known person but is merely vacuum cleaning up large amounts of communications, a warrant is not required because it’s not considered electronic surveillance,” Dempsey said. “They can collect the information en masse, and then they can extract it and analyze it … without a court order.”

Dempsey said the bill also allows the government to collect phone call and Internet traffic information from telephone companies without a court order, even on phone calls within the United States.

A spokesman for Pombo disagreed with Dempsey and defended the bill.

“Common sense dictates that process not be put ahead of human life,” said aide Lucas Frances. “That’s why the legislation focuses, properly, on protecting the American people during times of imminent terrorist threats first, with a reasonable and prudent delay in the warrant process. It does not eliminate the requirement to get a warrant at all.”

President George W. Bush scorned 177 Democrats in Congress during a Pombo fundraiser last week for “voting against listening in on terrorists” by opposing the bill, which passed 232-191 with the support of 18 Democrats. Thirteen Republicans and one independent voted against it.

“If you don’t think we should be listening in on the terrorists, then you ought to vote for the Democrats; if you want your government to continue listening in when al-Qaida planners are making phone calls into the United States, then you vote Republican,” said Bush at the Oct. 3 Stockton breakfast fundraiser, to applause from Pombo and the audience.

Pombo’s opponent, Jerry McNerney, opposes the bill.

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