Hamilton, Madison, and Jay

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Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

Who are we? We're a married couple who has a passion for politics and current events. That's what this site is about. If you read us, you know what we stand for.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Putting politics above security?

It's been awhile since any mention of the NSA's Terrorist Surveillance Program has been mentioned in the news. But in today's Opinion Journal, the editors tackle this ire-raising issue:

The U.S. homeland hasn't been struck by terrorists since September 11, and one reason may be more aggressive intelligence policies. So Americans should be alarmed that one of the best intelligence tools--warrantless wiretapping of al Qaeda suspects--has recently become far less effective and is in danger of being neutered by Congressional Democrats.

President Bush approved this terrorist surveillance not long after 9/11, allowing intelligence officials to track terrorist calls overseas, as well as overseas communications with al Qaeda sympathizers operating in the U.S. The New York Times exposed the program in late 2005, and Democrats and antiwar activists immediately denounced it as an "illegal" attempt to spy on Americans, à la J. Edgar Hoover.

Democratic leaders were briefed on the program from the first and never once tried to shut it down. But once it was exposed, these same Democrats accused Mr. Bush of breaking the law by not getting warrants from the special court created under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. Mr. Bush has rightly defended the program's legality, but as a gesture of compromise in January he agreed to seek warrants under the FISA process.

This has turned out to be an enormous mistake that has unilaterally disarmed one of our best intelligence weapons in the war on terror. To understand why, keep in mind that we live in a world of fiber optics and packet-switching. A wiretap today doesn't mean the FBI must install a bug on Abdul Terrorist's phone in Peshawar. Information now follows the path of least resistance, wherever that may lead. And because the U.S. has among the world's most efficient networks, hundreds of millions of foreign calls are routed through the U.S.

That's right: If an al Qaeda operative in Quetta calls a fellow jihadi in Peshawar, that call may well travel through a U.S. network. This ought to be a big U.S. advantage in our "asymmetrical" conflict with terrorists. But it also means that, for the purposes of FISA, a foreign call that is routed through U.S. networks becomes a domestic call. So thanks to the obligation to abide by an outdated FISA statute, U.S. intelligence is now struggling even to tap the communications of foreign-based terrorists. If this makes you furious, it gets worse.

Our understanding is that some FISA judges have been open to expediting warrants, as well as granting retroactive approval. But there are 11 judges in the FISA rotation, and some of them have been demanding that intelligence officials get permission in advance for wiretaps. This means missed opportunities and less effective intelligence. And it shows once again why the decisions of unaccountable judges shouldn't be allowed to supplant those of an elected Commander in Chief.

When the program began, certain U.S. telecom companies also cooperated with the National Security Agency. But they were sued once the program was exposed, and so some have ceased cooperating for fear of damaging liability claims. We found all of this hard to believe when we first heard it, but we've since confirmed the details with other high-level sources.

Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell more or less admitted the problem last week, albeit obliquely, when he told the Senate that "we're actually missing a significant portion of what we should be getting." That's understating things. Our sources say the surveillance program is now at most one-third as effective as it once was.

The president's singular mistake in this mess was to place the NSA TSP under the auspice of FISA. Never before has a Commander-in-Chief waived his rights and authority under the Constitution to anyone that doesn't have the explicit rights. In other words, when it comes to national security, the buck stops with the president; not with congress, not with the courts, and certainly not with FISA. To date, eighteen cases have been brought against the executive for what others have called "illegal surveillance." The problem is that when it's done int he interest of national security, it's not illegal. The most prominent case that dealt with this issue was the FISA Court of Review case called In re: Sealed Case. It is the only time the FISA Court of Review has ever met to deal with a question regarding such powers with relation to FISA, and the court of Review ruled in favor of the executive branch.

This was the single most effective program we had in our arsenal to combat terrorists around the globe. As John Hinderacker notes at Power Line, it is "infuriating" that the Democrats refuse to allow the president to take steps to modernize FISA so it is more in tune with the world we live in, and with the tactics necessary to protect the nation. The Democrats are clearly putting politics before national security on this matter, and only God knows why.

But our ire still lies with President Bush. His concession to turn the operation over to FISA was a mistake. Granted he thought that in doing so, the pressure would be backed off a notch or two, and the Democrats would be placated. I'm sorry but this is the sort of mistake that presidents can ill afford to make.

The Democrats don't like him, and that should be evident by now with all the investigations they wish to launch into the executive branch over issues as trite as firing attorneys, to whether or not the intelligence for the Iraq invasion was "cooked," to investigating a non-crime like Valerie Plame's non-cover being blown, and so on and so forth. If these people had wanted to "get along" with the "compassionate conservative" that was elected in 2000, they would have by now. Here we are, six years later, and these people are still throwing bombs at him and his administration, and they show no signs of stopping.

Sheesh. And we thought he had it rough dealing with the same animals that wanted to blow us up?

Part of this is President Bush's fault. To that there can be no argument. However, a good deal of the blame for the failure of this operations sits at the Democrat's feet. They didn't raise a stink about this when Presidents Clinton, Bush (41), Reagan, or Carter used this power, but all of a sudden it's wrong for the current president to use it. This further proves who is on the right side of winning the war, and who simply can't leave politics behind when it comes to making sure the nation is secured from it's enemies.

Publius II


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