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Editorial: Spy Legislation

More fear politics

Using scare tactics is no way to work out how the nation should craft the spying tools needed in its fight to detect and thwart terrorist attacks.

It's no surprise, of course, but that's exactly what President Bush did to get the Senate to approve broadening the government's spy powers and give phone companies legal cover for going along with warrantless wiretaps.

Now Bush wants the House to fall in line. He leaned on Congress to finalize expanding spying powers for federal agents this week. In doing so, the president implied that House Democrats, in particular, would be blamed if the nation were attacked before passing the anti-terror legislation.

Bush wasn't subtle about it, either: "Terrorists are planning new attacks on our country . . . that will make Sept. 11 pale by comparison," he said.

All the president wants the House to do is rubber-stamp the controversial espionage legislation passed by the Senate on Tuesday. But the House should resist.

With the renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Security Act, the Senate gave the White House carte blanche to scoop up massive amounts of U.S.-bound e-mail and telephone traffic. There would be no meaningful oversight by the courts - in effect, gutting prior privacy protections by legal mandates for court-approved warrants.

What's also troubling about the Senate-approved measure is that it grants retroactive immunity to the phone companies that cooperated in Bush's post-9/11 program of warrantless eavesdropping. A better, House-passed version of the spy bill wouldn't let the firms run from customer privacy lawsuits. More important, those legal actions represent the best hope of uncovering the full story about the Bush administration's apparent end run around wiretaps laws.

It's too bad that Democratic Sens. Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania and Tom Carper of Delaware, and Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter allowed themselves to be cowed into voting to shred citizens' privacy safeguards.

As for the president's terror warning, well, don't reach for the duct tape just yet. Last time anyone checked, the needle on the government's threat meter hadn't budged off the middling yellow, or "elevated," line. So whatever dangers Bush was referring to must be known only to him and his advisors (or at least the vice president).

Whatever the actual threat, Bush is trying to stampede Congress - particularly, Democrats. He's pressuring them to approve a misguided anti-terrorism law out of the fear that they'll be seen by American voters as weak on national security. It's an old strategy, and one that meek Democrats continue to swallow.

No one questions the need for antiterror agents to spy on the nation's enemies. But it should be done with privacy safeguards and accountability. That's why the House shouldn't cave to fear.