Originally appeared at SFGate.com January 11, 2005
Ever since Sept. 11, critics have been insisting that the U.S. government remedy the blind spots that led to the attacks. ? That was the ostensible purpose of the Sept. 11 commission, and most of its recommendations did indeed conform to such goals. Yet every effort to “connect the dots” since has been met with opposition by the very same critics.
The recent wiretapping controversy is a case in point. ?
Last month, the New York Times broke the story that the National Security Agency has been listening in on the electronic communications of al Qaeda operatives in America. And the debate has been raging ever since. ?The problem is, the story turns out not to have been quite the shocker the Times intended. ?
For one thing, congressional leaders were informed about the surveillance and seemed to have had few qualms about it at the time. ?The monitored calls were international in origin, a fact conveniently overlooked by those still labeling it a “domestic spying program.” ?Constitutionally speaking, such actions are in fact within the power of the executive branch, as a recent Justice Department communication makes clear. ?
The intelligence that led to the surveillance was gleaned from computers, cell phones and phone books belonging to captured al Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah and picked up during a CIA operation in Pakistan in 2002. ?Similarly, the capture of al Qaeda operations chief and Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Pakistan in 2003 produced a treasure trove of information regarding al Qaeda contacts in America. ?It would have been beyond negligent for the government to ignore such solid leads. ?If confirmed members of al Qaeda residing in the United States, whether citizens or not, do not make for appropriate surveillance targets, then who does?
FISA Hobbling Investigations
Critics’ main bone of contention is that the NSA conducted the surveillance without a warrant from the FISA court. Originating with the Foreign Service Intelligence Act of 1978, the FISA court gives warrants to the executive branch in particular situations for surveillance purposes. But the reliability of FISA in providing such warrants is questionable. After all, it was FISA’s stringent requirements that led FBI headquarters to deny Minneapolis field agents’ request for a warrant to search alleged “20th hijacker” Zacharias Moussaoui’s computer before the Sept. 11 attacks. ? ? ?
Terrorism investigations have been hamstrung for years by the FISA requirement to show “probable cause” that a terrorist suspect is “an agent of a foreign power.” ?Jamie Gorelick, Clinton administration deputy attorney and (in an apparent conflict of interest) member of the Sept. 11 commission, set up the notorious “wall of separation” between foreign intelligence work and domestic criminal investigations to meet FISA’s standards. ?
This was the wall that eventually had to be broken down by the Patriot Act to bring terrorist investigations up to date. ?Indeed, most of the objections to the Patriot Act revolve around simply giving terrorist investigations the same powers as those of criminal investigations—something that would seem to make sense.
Those afraid of a wider abuse of power could look to the former administration for inspiration. ?We now know that under the Clinton administration the NSA conducted surveillance on all electronic communications with a top-secret global program called Echelon—without a court order. The story was reported on by “60 Minutes” at the time, yet for some reason today’s hand-wringers have conveniently overlooked this precedent. ?
‘Good’ Leaks and ‘Bad’?
One would also think that those who have spent years focusing on the still-unproven Valerie Plame leak should in theory be concerned about the leaks emanating from such institutions as the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the Justice Department and even the Pentagon. ?Yet we don’t hear much from the chorus of critics on this issue. ?
With seemingly no regard for tipping off America’s enemies, the mainstream media have been all too eager to publish any and all classified information that comes their way via these leaks.
The same issue came up last November when the Washington Post ran an article exposing alleged CIA “black sites” in eastern Europe where terrorist suspects were being secretly detained. The Bush administration denied the existence of these prisons, as did several eastern European leaders, but the damage had already been done. The United States took yet another hit in the propaganda battle.
This may be why a recent anti-American rally held by Iranian pilgrims in Mecca not only referred to “secret prisons” but also to “the tapping of citizens’ phone calls without a court order.” As if we needed any more people chanting “Death to America!” these days.
As for the NSA surveillance program, President Bush stood by it during a recent press conference, going so far as to call the Times leak “a shameful act” the public discussion of which “is helping the enemy.” ?To its credit, the Justice Department has called for an investigation into the wiretapping leak, which could involve asking the Times to reveal its sources. ?Predictably, privacy advocates are crying foul. But if the Times is going to use national security as a pretense, then it should be held responsible for its part in potentially undermining it. ?
Weakening National Security
When all is said and done, the uproar over the wiretapping controversy will likely turn out to be nothing more than yet another example of partisan politics. All the talk of impeachment and comparing Bush to Nixon is simply that, talk. Never one to let facts get in the way of an opportunity for Bush-bashing, the opposition has already added the story to their canon of talking points. Like those before it, it will live on as fact in the minds of those disinclined to search out the truth.
But it’s all about regaining power. The naysayers are so consumed with their hatred of George W. Bush that they’re actually willing to chip away at the country’s defenses to defeat him. They don’t seem to understand that by weakening America, they weaken themselves. The idea that one’s way of life will simply continue uninterrupted despite the aggression of a fascistic movement is willful blindness at its worst. ?
Most Americans seem to understand this, which is why a recent Rasmussen poll showed that 64 percent of Americans think the NSA “should be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States.” It is only a vocal minority that continues to act as if the country were not at war. We may not all have to agree on how to fight the war on Islamic terrorism, but it would help if we agreed that there is indeed a war to fight.
This war was declared on America with the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. In the 22 years between then and Sept. 11, the U.S. government and intelligence services reacted essentially by not reacting. Threats were ignored, countless attacks went unanswered, blatant hostility was disregarded, turf wars superseded intelligence work and political correctness reigned supreme. The fact that Able Danger, a U.S. Army intelligence program, had Sept. 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and the Brooklyn cell in its sights and was unable to act because of such constraints is evidence of this failure.
This was the approach that resulted in just under 3,000 people being incinerated on Sept. 11. And now some would have us return to those days of blissful ignorance with no regard for the consequences.
But a Sept. 10 state of mind in a post-Sept. 11 world simply isn’t going to cut it.