Monday, September 17, 2007

FISA: Bush as Dictator

Legislation was signed on Sunday (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA) that gives the go-ahead for the US government to carry out warrantless wiretapping and whatever other method of surveillance they like, further making a mockery of the constitution. But Bush says he's not finished yet:

"While I appreciate the leadership it took to pass this bill, we must remember that our work is not done. This bill is a temporary, narrowly focused statute to deal with the most immediate shortcomings in the law. When Congress returns in September the Intelligence committees and leaders in both parties will need to complete work on the comprehensive reforms requested by Director McConnell, including the important issue of providing meaningful liability protection to those who are alleged to have assisted our Nation following the attacks of September 11, 2001."

His use of the word "alleged" is interesting, as pointed out by Professor Jack Balkin on his website:

I particularly love the phrase "alleged to have assisted our Nation." In his letter to Congress the other day Intelligence Director Michael McConnell spoke of "liability protection for those who are alleged to have helped the country stay safe after September 11, 2001." Apparently "allegedly helped us stay safe" is Bush Administration code for telecom companies and government officials who participated in a conspiracy to perform illegal surveillance. Because what they did is illegal, we do not admit that they actually did it, we only say that they are alleged to have done it. Or perhaps the Administration is suggesting that although such parties are alleged to have helped the country stay safe, there's no evidence that their repeated violations of federal law actually did much to promote our security. No, they couldn't mean that.

Think Progress put together a blog showing some examples of some of the editorials coming out in the mainstream news:

Last week, under heavy political pressure from the White House, Congress approved the White House-backed version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which provided expansive spying authority to the Bush administration. The White House had earlier rejected a compromise bill that provided powers sought by the Director of National Intelligence, opting instead to play politics with the issue.

In the past two days, at least nine major newspapers have editorialized against the FISA legislation, with the New York Times today calling it an “unnecessary and dangerous expansion of President Bush’s powers.” Some examples:

USA Today:

A skittish Congress allowed itself to be stampeded last week into granting the president unfettered surveillance power. When it returns to Washington, it should do what it can to make sure that the sun goes down on this flawed measure. [Link]

Washington Post:

To call this legislation ill-considered is to give it too much credit: It was scarcely considered at all. Instead, it was strong-armed through both chambers by an administration that seized the opportunity to write its warrantless wiretapping program into law — or, more precisely, to write it out from under any real legal restrictions. [Link]

The New York Times:

While serving little purpose, the new law has real dangers. It would allow the government to intercept, without a warrant, every communication into or out of any country, including the United States. Instead of explaining all this to American voters — the minimal benefits and the enormous risks — the Democrats have allowed Mr. Bush and his fear-mongering to dominate all discussions on terrorism and national security. [Link]

The Los Angeles Times:

You know something’s wrong with this Congress when a Democratic champion of privacy rights feels compelled to vote for Republican legislation that compromises those rights. That’s what California Sen. Dianne Feinstein did last week when she joined a stampede to approve a temporary “fix” sought by the Bush administration in a law governing electronic surveillance. [Link]

San Francisco Chronicle:

No-limits spying is on a roll. In rushed votes, both the House and Senate meekly accepted a White House plan to vastly expand phone and e-mail eavesdropping. The changes were sold as a key step in tracking foreign terrorists and their allies on American soil. But the shift guts any semblance of oversight, leaving the picking and choosing of targets to spy agencies. [Link]

The Boston Globe:

The administration maintains that technological changes have created problems with the 1978 law. But never has Bush demonstrated why the terms of that law, which permitted officials to get warrant approvals up to 72 hours after they started a wiretap, are no longer workable. This and other questions could have been answered if Congress had demanded an open debate on the administration’s bill. Its failure to do so is a shameful abdication of its own responsibility. It’s difficult to maintain a system of checks and balances when one branch simply checks out. [Link]

Rocky Mountain News:

Now the authority to approve wiretaps rests with the attorney general - hardly a reassuring prospect given Alberto Gonzales’ performance in that office - and the director of national intelligence. … Given the administration’s expansive view of its own powers, this FISA rewrite could allow much wider eavesdropping, with little outside oversight. [Link]

Sacramento Bee:

After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush did an end run around the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which prohibits eavesdropping on Americans without judicial oversight. Instead of going to Congress to change the law, Bush decided to simply monitor without warrants the international phone calls and e-mails of people inside the United States. Six years later, the Bush administration belatedly has gone to Congress. But instead of promoting modernization in the law, the administration has ginned up new fears about terrorist attacks and cowed Congress into passing hasty, ill-considered changes. [Link]

Seattle Post Intelligencer:

The redeeming aspect of the political theater involving Americans’ rights to privacy is that Congress wrote itself an option for a better ending in six months. [Link]

Igor Volsky

UPDATE: More anger from local papers: The Huntsville Times, the Albany Times Union, and OC Register.

Good to know they're at least paying attention while they're stripped of their freedoms.

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