PREDICTABLY, SPECTER CAVES….Remember in February, when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) unveiled a bill that would have mandated that the Bush administration get a warrant before tapping a domestic phone call? Don’t worry; neither does Specter.

The senior senator from Pennsylvania has been all over the map on this one. First he wanted judicial oversight. More recently, Specter offered a “compromise” proposal whereby lawmakers could make the president’s surveillance programs legal — after the fact — while also making it next to impossible for someone to have the legal “standing” to challenge the administration’s conduct in court. Yesterday, Specter went ever further.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has proposed legislation that would give President Bush the option of seeking a warrant from a special court for an electronic surveillance program such as the one being conducted by the National Security Agency.

Sen. Arlen Specter’s approach modifies his earlier position that the NSA eavesdropping program, which targets international telephone calls and e-mails in which one party is suspected of links to terrorists, must be subject to supervision by the secret court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

The new proposal specifies that it cannot “be construed to limit the constitutional authority of the President to gather foreign intelligence information or monitor the activities and communications of any person reasonably believed to be associated with a foreign enemy of the United States.”

It’s hard to call this a “compromise.” It’s more accurate to call it a “bad joke.”

Just a few months ago, as the public was learning about Bush’s legally-dubious surveillance initiatives, Specter swore up and down that he’d demand full oversight and accountability. He talked about the needs for checks and balances. He was willing to make all kinds of public threats.

But it was just hollow rhetoric. Specter now believes a warrant from a FISA court to eavesdrop on a domestic phone call should be “optional.” Anyone care to guess how frequently Bush might choose to exercise this “option”?

But wait; there’s more.

Another part of the Specter bill would grant blanket amnesty to anyone who authorized warrantless surveillance under presidential authority, a provision that seems to ensure that no one would be held criminally liable if the current program is found illegal under present law.

Specter believes the administration’s surveillance efforts violated the law, but under his new approach, there’s no punishment and no accountability. Silly me, I thought Republicans were against amnesty.

Glenn Greenwald captures the problem nicely.

The idea that the President’s allies in Congress would enact legislation which expressly shields government officials, including the President, from criminal liability for past lawbreaking is so reprehensible that it is difficult to describe. To my knowledge, none of the other proposed bills — including those from the most loyal Bush followers in the Senate — contained this protective provision. And without knowing anywhere near as much as I would need to know in order to form a definitive opinion, the legality of this provision seems questionable at best. It’s really the equivalent of a pardon, a power which the Constitutional preserves for the President. Can Congress act as a court and simply exonerate citizens from criminal conduct?

Violations of the law in the past are forgiven, and following the law in the future is “optional.” Who could have imagined that Specter would cave so completely and abandon the positions he so forcefully articulated just weeks ago? Oh wait, everyone could have imagined it.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.