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House Democrats back away from wiretap reform plan

Democratic acquiescence is a victory for President Bush, who said last week that the proposal was unacceptable to him.

In the face of a presidential veto threat, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives pushed off a scheduled vote Wednesday on legislation designed to limit warrantless wiretapping.

The Democratic acquiescence was a victory for President Bush, who said last week that the proposal was unacceptable to him.

Opposition had come from both sides. Republicans had savaged the proposal as harmful to national security. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said on Wednesday that the delay was "bad news for Osama bin Laden and other terrorists," thereby illustrating McCullagh's Law in action. Meanwhile, privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, said it was unconstitutional because it fails to require individual warrants.

In addition, Senate Democrats reportedly have reached an accommodation with the White House that would include full retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies and Internet service providers. Bush had said last week that immunity was non-negotiable.

This immunity seems a little difficult to defend, as I wrote a few days ago. If a company knowingly violated a privacy law, and the law is a reasonable one, why not hold it responsible? If AT&T is rewarded with immunity for its alleged complicity with the National Security Agency, it's is far more likely to ignore privacy laws in the future. (And if it followed the law, it has no need of retroactive immunity.)

What's surprising in this debate over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is that House Democrats are on the defensive even though the Rocky Mountain News revealed last week that the Bush administration had tried to pressure Qwest into opening its network in February 2001--seven months before the attacks on September 11, 2001.

But even with that evidence, and a chastened Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell rescinding his claims about the need for more snooping powers, the Democrats still got rolled.