Obama On FISA: Security Trumps Suing Phone Companies

In a press conference on Wednesday, Sen. Barack Obama explained his support for a compromise on FISA legislation, saying that concerns over American security trumped, at this point in time, objections over immunity for telecommunications that participated in the previously illegal program.

"The bill has changed but I don't think the security threats have changed. I think the security threats are similar," said the Illinois Democrat. "My view on FISA has always been that the issue of the phone companies per se is not one that overrides the security interests of the American people. I do want accountability, and making sure, as I've said before, someone is watching the watchers, that you don't have an administration that feels that it can make its own determinations about when warrantless wiretaps are applicable without going through a FISA court and that's what we had."

Obama's support for the compromise legislation, which includes a sweeping overhaul of the nation's electronic surveillance laws and grants conditional immunity for telecommunications companies who participated in the previous program, has effectively cast him against prominent members of his own political party. The House of Representatives passed the legislation this week with the majority of Democrats voting nay. The Senate, late Wednesday, voted to end debate on the measure, which could pass that body as early as Thursday. Only 15 Senators voted against cloture.

For Obama, however, the trickier aspect of this debate is explaining why, during the Democratic primary, he promised to defeat any FISA compromise that included telecom immunity and now, in the general, he is seemingly hedging on that pledge. The Senator, in a previous statement, said he would work to remove such a provision from the bill and offered to support an amendment doing just that. On Wednesday, he elaborated on that statement.

"It is a close call for me, but I think that the current legislation with the exclusivity provision that says that a president, whether it's George Bush or myself or John McCain, can't make up rationales for getting around the FISA court, can't suggest that somehow there's some law that stands above the laws passed by Congress in engaging in warrantless wiretaps. The fact that that provision is in there I think is very important and provides us protection going forward. The fact that that provision is in there I think is very important and provides us protection going forward."

His remarks may not be enough to placate Democrats invested in the fight. For this faction, the issue of immunity remains one of constitutional limitations -- as in, citizens, organizations and others should have the right to sue the government over illegal electronic surveillance. Obama, however, is framing immunity as a sticking point to a much more important legislative objective: putting in place a legal security apparatus. And thus, for critics, his support for the new FISA compromise seems more about demonstrating national security toughness than righting past wrongs.