Thursday, July 03, 2008


FISA: Why we continue to fight

by Kagro X

Back in March, I wrote a story laying out the rationale for drawing out a FISA fight that everyone expected us eventually to lose. ("We don't have the votes!") The basic premise:

Every time Congressional Dems actually slow down and take stock of the situation -- from Senator Chris Dodd's brave (and lonely and seemingly futile) stand, to the cautious maneuvering of House Dems today -- new revelations arise that should make all Americans who value our freedoms glad they did.

Well, the House stopped slowing down recently, and have handed an all-too-willing Senate (which has all along been more willing than the House, it must be noted) a bill that puts retroactive immunity for the pay-for-play telecom spies back on the table. Now it's back in the Senate's lap, with a few brave souls preparing to do what they can to keep the train wreck in slow motion.

Is that worth doing? Sure. And for all the same reasons, which perhaps deserve mention again as Senators prepare to vote on this mess when they come back to work next week. And it couldn't hurt for you to be armed with this list if you see your Senators or Representatives at your local Fourth of July festivities.

So, over the years since we first learned of the Bush domestic spying scheme, and in the six month reprieve that the extended FISA fight has given us, what have we learned about the security and surveillance practices of the "administration" that we supposedly should trust with these new powers?

  • We learned that:

    A U.S. government office in Quantico, Virginia, has direct, high-speed access to a major wireless carrier's systems, exposing customers' voice calls, data packets and physical movements to uncontrolled surveillance

  • We learned that they resurrected and hid Total Information Awareness:

    Five years ago, Congress killed an experimental Pentagon antiterrorism program meant to vacuum up electronic data about people in the U.S. to search for suspicious patterns. Opponents called it too broad an intrusion on Americans' privacy, even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

    But the data-sifting effort didn't disappear. The National Security Agency, once confined to foreign surveillance, has been building essentially the same system.

  • We learned that all the lines are being erased, with the national security apparatus monitoring domestic data traffic and the FBI becoming a foreign intelligence outfit.
  • We've learned that the FBI has committed massive abuses of its powers::

    The Justice Department's inspector general told a committee of angry House members yesterday that the FBI may have violated the law or government policies as many as 3,000 times since 2003 as agents secretly collected the telephone, bank and credit card records of U.S. citizens and foreign nationals residing here.

  • We've learned that the FBI still gets it wrong pretty often, too:

    A technical glitch gave the F.B.I. access to the e-mail messages from an entire computer network — perhaps hundreds of accounts or more — instead of simply the lone e-mail address that was approved by a secret intelligence court as part of a national security investigation, according to an internal report of the 2006 episode.

  • And of course, we've not forgotten the good, old "No-Fly List"

    The Transportation Security Administration's secret no-fly list includes some very unlikely terror suspects -- Bolivian President Evo Morales, 14 of the 19 dead 9/11 hijackers, and every single person named "Robert Johnson."

  • We learned that the argument still frequently made that foreign-to-foreign phone calls that pass through the U.S. can't be monitored without the PAA and the new FISA changes, and which are constantly pointed to as the proximate cause of the deaths of American soldiers was... a lie:

    The fight in Congress and the big push for expanded wiretapping powers has nothing to do with intercepting foreign-to-foreign phone calls inside the United States without a court order. In fact, it turns out that the nation's secret wiretapping court is fine with that.

  • We learned that the "administration" believes the AUMF rendered the fourth amendment a nullity:

    ... our Office recently concluded that the Fourth Amendment had no application to domestic military operations. See Memorandum for Alberto R. Gonzales, Counsel to the President, and William J. Haynes, II, General Counsel, Department of Defense, from John C. Yoo, Deputy Assistant Attorney General and Robert J. Delahunty, Special Counsel, Re: Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities Within the United States at 25 (Oct 23, 2001).

  • We learned that that might not even matter, since the head of the NSA is dead certain there's no probable cause standard in the fourth amendment, anyway:

  • We learned that the DOJ may be using your cell phone to track your physical movements without a warrant, or any court oversight.
  • We learned that the "administration" says it can read your mail without a warrant:

    President Bush quietly has claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail without a judge's warrant.

    Bush asserted the new authority Dec. 20 after signing legislation that overhauls some postal regulations. He then issued a "signing statement" that declared his right to open mail under emergency conditions, contrary to existing law and contradicting the bill he had just signed, according to experts who have reviewed it.

    A White House spokeswoman disputed claims that the move gives Bush any new powers, saying the Constitution allows such searches.

  • We learned that racial profiling is back at the FBI, and this time, it's a-ok:

    Nearly 40 years ago, the FBI was roundly criticized for investigating Americans without evidence they had broken any laws. Now, critics fear the FBI may be gearing up to do it again.

    Tentative Justice Department guidelines, to be released later this summer, would let agents investigate people whose backgrounds — and potentially their race or ethnicity — match the traits of terrorists.

    Such profiling faintly echoes the FBI's now-defunct COINTELPRO, an operation under Director J. Edgar Hoover in the 1950s and 1960s to monitor and disrupt groups with communist and socialist ties.

    Before it was shut down in 1971, the domestic spying operation — formally known as Counterintelligence Programs — had expanded to include civil rights groups, anti-war activists, the Ku Klux Klan, state legislators and journalists.

    Among the FBI's targets were Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and John Lennon, along with members of black extremist groups, Fidel Castro sympathizers and student protesters.

And of course, all of these unchecked expansions of executive spying power are occurring in a context in which the Congress has found itself almost completely without power to compel any compliance at all with its most serious oversight responsibilities. Despite the assurances they're scrambling to give that all will be well and closely-watched, the reality is that this Congress has been unwilling and/or unable to exercise any serious control over the executive in the way it interprets or implements these powers, even when such implementation is clearly outside the law. In fact, it is precisely because the implementation was outside the law that we're even having this debate, and incredibly, it's a debate about retroactively legalizing it.

In the face of all of these absurdities, rely on the Washington Post to tell us that opposition to this bill at this time -- in the hands of this president, too -- is inherently unreasonable:

Reasonable people can differ on the issue of immunity, but the FISA debate hasn't been overpopulated by reasonable people. As a result, the immunity issue has assumed a significance in the legislative process that far exceeds its underlying importance. We understand the heartfelt arguments of those who believe that closing the courthouse door to Americans who claim the warrantless wiretapping invaded their privacy rights represents "an abandonment of the rule of law," as Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said last month.

The editorial actually has passages in it that are considerably worse, and some which are outright false. For example, the assertion that "no one can claim with certainty that his or her communications were monitored." Untrue, as the parties in the Al-Haramain case (as well as that class of people in possession of eyeballs used for reading) well know, but the Washington Post apparently does not.

But if it's true, as the editorial whines, that immunity "is the least -- not the most -- important aspect of the complex FISA debate," you couldn't tell from the traditional media coverage of that debate. Crocodile tears from the Post editorial board are no substitute for the media's missed opportunity to discuss those "most important" aspects of the complex FISA debate. But they've been AWOL on those issues, and it took bloggers latching onto the most politically explosive of the issues to even slow the runaway train long enough for the more important issues -- and I agree there are plenty of them -- to even get a second look.

The Post, of course, would have you flush that opportunity down the toilet in the mad rush to inscribe the mistakes being made on those more important issues on the books. How "reasonable," indeed.

Unchecked expansion of spying powers. A complete lack of enforceability of Congressional oversight. A lapdog press that actually can't wait to cheerlead for the collapse of all controls.

Has there been any point in our history when it's made less sense for the Congress to cede even broader powers to the executive?

In one last, great irony, you and your representatives in Congress are given one last chance to think this over: the Independence Day holiday. I urge you to think more deeply and seriously about it than the Washington Post has.

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