civil liberties

surveillance bills

After passing a six-month "emergency" surveillance bill in August 2007 - to grapple with holes in US wiretapping powers while trying to legalize a previous secret spying program - Congress passed a long term solution in July '08.

The House and Senate originally had different takes on where to hinge the balance between security and civil liberties (their respective bills are listed below). At issue was how much oversight the courts should have when spying on calls to and from terrorist groups when one person on the call may be in the US - and also whether or not to give phone companies retro-active immunity for giving the feds access to phone calls under a previous, secret wiretapping program. As of the end of June '08, both chambers hatched a compromise, HR 6304, which passed both chambers over the summer.

We offer a glimpse of each chamber's bills below - alongside last year's slap-dash bill.

For background on the secret NSA program and what's been happening on Capitol Hill since, see our NSA Wiretap brief.

enemy combatants & terrorist trials

Issue in Brief

what's up

The war on terror gave rise to a new kind of foe - the "enemy combatant." Not quite prisoners of war, but not run-of-the-mill criminals either, these "enemies" are being held in a legal limbo state - mostly at Guantanamo - that's caused strains in international relations and at-home politics.

The central debate about combatants iwas inititially over the kind of trials and due process rights they are entitled to, but word of actions in Gitmo and at secret prisons have also kicked up a debate over torture.

Lawmakers tried to settle the trial issue by passing legislation in October 2006, but they left a trail of legal wrinkles in their wake. Not only were civil libertarians dissatisfied with the new rules for combatant tribunals, they also didn't like the fuzzy line the Bush administration drew between legit interrogation methods and torture - or the fact that enemy combatants lost their right to habeas corpus (that is, the right to go to court).

NSA wiretaps

Issue in Brief

what's up

In December 2005, the New York Times reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) was tapping into international calls to the US without warrants. A couple of years - as well as lawsuits, hearings and bills - later, Congress finally passed a bill in July '08, essentially legalizing the NSA program and giving legal protection to the telecom companies that complied with the NSA from pending lawsuits. See a brief overview of that bill here.

the back story

After the first '05 Times report, it didn't take long for the battalions of civil libertarians and security hawks to get in formation and accuse each other of "illegal power grabs," "forgetting the lessons of 9/11," etc. etc.

PATRIOT Act

Bill in Brief

Passed in the wake of 9/11, the PATRIOT Act quickly became a target for civil libertarians who said the new law went too far in increasing the government's spying powers. Civil libertarians had a chance to tweak some of the Act's provisions in 2005, when many of its sections were slated to expire, but they won few concessions in the end when the law was finally renewed in March, 2006. (WP)

From the get go, the House and Senate's 2005 debates agreed that Patriot's more controversial parts - on "sneak & peaks," library records and "National Security Letters" - had to be changed up, but the Senate was slightly more aggressive in pushing for more civil libertarian safeguards. See the chart below on the - mostly subtle - differences between the draft bills from each chamber.

issue guide: Same Sex Marriage

The Skinny

see also background & facts, pro & con, links

What's Up

In November 2003, a Massachusetts’ Supreme Court decision legitimizing gay marriages sparked a nationwide debate that had same-sex couples running to the altar and state governments scrambling to define who could and who could not get hitched. President Bush brought the debate to DC by endorsing a change to the Constitution that would outlaw same-sex marriages. So far there’s been more bark than bite to the national debate, with the status of DC's position on gay marriages little altered since '03. But at the state level, the pandora’s box of same-sex marriages was flung wide open; while most states immediately moved to limit or ban same-sex marriage, a growing number inched toward approval of same-sex partnerships and marriages.