Watching FISA Fizzle

from the the-political-circus dept

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) appears to be the blogosphere's favorite son this week, with calls for him to replace Harry Reid (D-NV) as Majority Leader in the wake of his successful attempt to block passage of the White House–approved version of reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. While perhaps most controversial for a provision granting retroactive immunity from civil suit to telecom providers who participated in the National Security Agency's program of extrajudicial wiretaps, the legislation was also loathed by civil libertarians for granting the Attorney General broad, minimally supervised power to eavesdrop on Americans' communications with foreign intelligence targets. Dodd, for his part, returns the love, thanking the netroots for making it all possible on—where else?—YouTube. Reid, meanwhile, has said he'll move to extend the stopgap Protect America Act passed in August rather than attempt to reach a vote on a more permanent replacement in the brief time between the start of the next Senate session in mid-January and the law's scheduled sunset on February 1. This holds out at least some hope that the next serious overhaul of American intel law will, for once, not be rushed through Congress in a quasi-panic.

Major media reactions have been more or less predictable across the board, and yet I still managed to be a bit surprised by an utterly unsurprising Wall Street Journal editorial, just for the sheer chutzpah displayed in recycling talking points so far past their sell-by date:

FISA allows the government to tap communications outside the U.S. without judicial approval. But these days, many international calls pass through America en route from one international point to another. Unless Congress acts by February 1, when a temporary law expires, intelligence agents will be unable to monitor these calls without asking a judge for permission.

That may be fine with some Democrats, who have always been more comfortable treating terrorism as a law-enforcement problem rather than a real war. But it's a tough political sell to say that America should respect the "civil liberties" of al Qaeda terrorists overseas.

As I need not tell Techdirt readers, this is either clueless or disingenuous. First, and most obviously, because all of the proposed amendments to FISA allow surveillance of foreign-to-foreign traffic routed through U.S. switches, and none of them evince the slightest concern for "the 'civil liberties of al Qaeda terrorists overseas." Second (and only slightly less obviously if you're moderately familiar with FISA), because the now-familiar narrative about why reform is needed has been transparently bollocks from the get go. The probability that the FISA Court handed down a ruling simply applying a warrant requirement to domestically intercepted foreign wire traffic is, to a first approximation, zero. If you've got a few minutes and a healthy sense of Schadenfreude, watch the contortions this poor Congressional Research Service attorney goes through (pdf) trying to find some way some such implication could conceivably be read into the statute's language. Then contemplate that the administration does not appear to have sought an appeal of this putatively crippling ruling. We can't know the real substance of the Court's problems with the way wiretaps were being handled, but we can be relatively certain of two things: They are more complicated than has been publicly suggested, and they provided a convenient means of persuading a cowed Congress to loose the judicial fetters entirely.

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Comments on “Watching FISA Fizzle”

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Yamanin says:

Wall St. Journal

No reason to be surprised by the WSJ’s stance — while the Journal has excellent reporters, their editorials make the Moonie-owned Washington Times look positively moderate and reasonable, and that’s even before Murdoch purchased the paper. Hopefully the firewall between the editorial and reportorial functions will hold, and the Journal won’t be transformed into the Fox News Business Daily.

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