MU panel discusses government wiretapping programs

Thursday, March 13, 2008 | 10:30 p.m. CDT; updated 12:52 a.m. CST, Tuesday, December 2, 2008

COLUMBIA — A panel of legal experts gathered Thursday at the MU Law School to discuss the Bush administration’s wiretapping programs and the Congressional bill that could grant amnesty to participating telecommunications companies.

The panel consisted of Christina Wells, an MU law professor; Charles Davis, an MU journalism professor; and attorneys John Coffman and Dan Viets who spoke about the bill which would amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

“FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) regulated U.S. government agencies who carry out physical searches and electronic surveillance,” Wells said. “There is an exclusivity provision in it. It says it is the only way the government can legally engage in surveillance of these kinds of communication. If that’s the case, then the warrantless wiretap program is pretty clearly illegal.”

The bill does not give legal protection to telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on their customers without court permission after Sept. 11. The Democrats’ measure would encourage the judge to review in private the secret documents underpinning the program to decide whether the companies acted lawfully.

The panelists voiced concerns that the wiretaps violated the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which requires a warrant when monitoring areas where citizens have reasonable expectations of privacy.

The law is intended to help the government pursue suspected terrorists by making it easier to eavesdrop on foreign phone calls and e-mails that pass through the U.S.

Bush said Thursday the House bill "could reopen dangerous intelligence gaps by putting in place a cumbersome court approval process that would make it harder to collect intelligence on foreign terrorists."

Panelists argued that the Bush administration is basically trying to get around the FISA Court, an entity that has denied only a small percentage of the more than 20,000 request for surveillance it has received since 1979.

The panelists said that trials of the companies would be one of the few ways to discover the scope of the government programs.

“To me its very important for the litigation to be allowed to be pursued so we can find out the truth,” Coffman said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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