Friday, February 15, 2008

A considered response to fearmongering

Halloween came early to the White House lawn yesterday with President Bush resorting to fearmongering and demonizing in his latest attempt to renew warrantless wiretapping and to sidestep judicial review of his previous extra-constitutional exercises.

Among his warnings:
If Congress does not act ... our ability to find out who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning will be compromised. ... And that, of course, would put the American people at risk.

Failure to act would harm our ability to monitor new terrorist activities, and could reopen dangerous gaps in our intelligence.

Our intelligence professionals are ... waiting to see whether Congress will give them the tools they need to succeed or tie their hands by failing to act.

...we better be worried.

Ewww, scary stuff. If Congress doesn't act, the terrorist threat will surely jump to code orange tomorrow.

To review, the President initially secretly authorized warantless wiretaps that went beyond the procedures spelled out in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). After his own Department of Justice balked, he demanded that Congress give him the authority to continue these activities, which Congress did ... for a while.

While the President has resorted to scare tactics numerous times, he has never demonstrated that suspension of the FISA provisions was actually necessary. When asked directly what "practical impact" Congress' (in)action would have, he said
There will be a gap. And of course, we won't be able to assess that gap until the time. Step one is, I guess you got to come to the conclusion that there's a threat to America, or not a threat. And evidently some people just don't feel that sense of urgency. I do. And the reason I do is I firmly believe that there's still people out there who would do us harm.

Secondly, I know that the tools that I've just described are necessary to protect us. Why? Because we need to know what people are saying, what they're planning and what they're thinking. And the tool that I have just described has been very effective.

That's the best he can do.

The President is also looking for immunity for the phone companies that helped him in his extra-legal searches. The lack of immunity is probably actually his biggest fear, as it would expose his activities to an independent judiciary.

In a considered response to the President's fright-fest, the Democratic chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Silvestre Reyes calmly reminded the President:
Today, the National Security Agency (NSA) has authority to conduct surveillance in at least three different ways, all of which provide strong capability to monitor the communications of possible terrorists.

First, NSA can use its authority under Executive Order 12333 to conduct surveillance abroad of any known or suspected terrorist. There is no requirement for a warrant. There is no requirement for probable cause. Most of NSA’s collection occurs under this authority.

Second, NSA can use its authority under the Protect America Act, enacted last August, to conduct surveillance here in the U.S of any foreign target. This authority does not "expire" on Saturday, as you have stated. Under the PAA, orders authorizing surveillance may last for one year – until at least August 2008. These orders may cover every terrorist group without limitation...

Third, in the remote possibility that a new terrorist organization emerges that we have never previously identified, the NSA could use existing authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor those communications.

He concluded
We are a strong nation. We cannot allow ourselves to be scared into suspending the Constitution. If we do that, we might as well call the terrorists and tell them that they have won.

Of course, that call may be monitored.

There are many legitimate things to be scared of, such as the consequences of the President's sub-prime lending acquiescence or living in a FEMA trailer, but not his latest channeling of Joe Isuzu.