Julian on the FISA Fiasco

by on August 7, 2007 · 0 comments

Over at Reason Julian chastises the Democrats for their spinelessness in passing the FISA “modernization” this weekend:

The hasty passage of the massive USA PATRIOT Act, a scant 45 days after [the 9/11] attacks, was ill-considered but understandable. Six years later, however, the administration has grown comfortable with the prerogatives panic affords. And, perversely, it has learned that it can continue to wield those prerogatives even under a Democratic majority, provided it insists on regarding Congress always and only as a last resort.

Consider the provenance of this “emergency” legislation. President Bush first authorized the National Security Agency to carry out a range of surveillance activities without court order, the full scope of which is still unknown, but which at the least included monitoring communications between persons in the United States and targets abroad. (Wholly international communications had always been exempt from the privacy restrictions imposed by U.S. law.) When this was revealed by The New York Times late in 2005, the administration insisted that national security required that intelligence agents be allowed to bypass even the super-secret—and highly compliant—FISA courts. Then, following the 2006 midterm elections, which gave Democrats a congressional majority, the Department of Justice abruptly announced that it had found a way to work within FISA after all. Finally, according to The LA Times, a spring ruling by a FISA court judge found that even this restricted version of the six-year-old program ran afoul of the law.

Suddenly it became urgent that Congress “modernize” what was invariably described as “the 1978 FISA statute,” conjuring images of forlorn agents in white polyester leisure suits vainly hunting for al-Qaeda terrorists hidden under Pet Rocks. Yet FISA had already been updated dozens of times since its initial passage, including six major amendments since the September 11 attacks, giving the administration myriad opportunities to request all the “modernization” it required, subject to thorough public debate. But even this manufactured urgency, it seems, was not enough. On the eve of the legislature’s August recess, House Democrats had worked out a compromise bill with Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, which preserved a modicum of judicial oversight over the expanded surveillance powers it granted. But the White House pronounced this unsatisfactory, threatening a veto and demanding still broader powers. If Democrats did not yield completely before Congress adjourned, Bush said, they would “put our national security at risk.”

More where that came from. I’ve also got a summary of the bill over at Ars.

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