31 Jul 2007

The Real Datamining Scandal

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David B. Rivkin, Jr. and Lee A. Casey argue, in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, that the real wiretapping scandal ought to be considered the significant degradation of American Counter-Terrorism surveillance capabilities as the result of partisanship and ideological assault.

Last Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing — at which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was insulted by senators and ridiculed by spectators — was Washington political theater at its lowest. But some significant information did manage to get through the senatorial venom directed at Mr. Gonzales. It now appears certain that the terrorist surveillance program (TSP) authorized by President Bush after 9/11 was even broader than the TSP that the New York Times first revealed in December 2005.

It is also clear that Mr. Gonzales, along with former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, tried to preserve that original program with the knowledge and approval of both Republican and Democratic members of key congressional committees. Unfortunately, they failed and the program was narrowed. Today, the continuing viability of even the slimmed-down TSP — an indispensable weapon in the war on terror — remains in serious doubt. …

In December 2005, … a firestorm of controversy erupted when The New York Times published a story describing the TSP. Although it was clear from the beginning that the program targeted al Qaeda — a particular communication was intercepted based on the presence of a suspected al Qaeda operative on at least one end — and not directed at ordinary Americans going about their daily routines, the administration’s critics quickly wove the TSP into their favorite overarching anti-Bush narrative. They cited it as just one more example of a supposedly power-hungry president, the new “king George,” chewing up our civil liberties.

Administration officials, including Attorney General Gonzales, repeatedly explained the TSP to Congress and the public, presumably to an extent consistent with continuing national security imperatives. In particular, they said that only communications where at least one party to the conversation was outside of the U.S. were intercepted; purely domestic calls were not in play. But after months of congressional pressure, and having failed to secure new legislation that would have fundamentally revised FISA, the administration announced in January this year that it had reached an agreement with the special FISA court to bring the TSP under judicial auspices. …

What has gotten lost in all of this increasingly sordid game of political gotcha is the viability of a critical program in the war on terror. The TSP was brought under the FISA court’s jurisdiction this January, allegedly without impairing its effectiveness. But FISA orders are not permanent. They must be periodically reissued, and FISA judges rotate. As an editorial on the facing page of the Journal first reported Friday, well-placed sources say that today’s FISA-compliant TSP is only about “one-third” as effective as the 2005 version — which, in turn, was less comprehensive than the original program. This is shocking during a summer of heightened threat warnings, and should be unacceptable to Congress and the American people.

The problem is particularly acute because FISA’s 1978 framework has been rendered dysfunctional by the evolution of technology. FISA was enacted in a world where intercepts of purely foreign communications were conducted overseas, and were entirely exempt from the statutory strictures. Only true U.S. domestic communications were intercepted on U.S. soil and these intercepts were subjected to FISA’s prescriptive procedures. Yet, with today’s fiber optic networks functioning as the sinews of the global communications system, entirely foreign calls — say between al Qaeda operatives overseas — often flow through U.S. facilities and can be most reliably intercepted on American soil. Subjecting these intercepts to FISA strictures is absurd.

Moreover, the very fact that the intelligence community operates in a state of continued uncertainty about what precise surveillance parameters would be allowed in the future — instead of having the collection efforts driven entirely by the unfolding operational imperatives — is both unprecedented in wartime and highly detrimental. In past wars, as fighting continued, valuable battlefield experience was gathered, causing weapons systems, military organization and combat techniques to improve consistently. In this difficult war with al Qaeda, by contrast, the key battlefield intelligence-gathering program has been repeatedly emasculated.

Congress’ obsession with the TSP’s legal pedigree has become the major threat to its continued viability, rivaling in its deleterious impact the infamous “wall,” much criticized by the 9/11 Commission, which prevented information sharing between the Justice Department’s intelligence and law-enforcement divisions. It is hypocritical for those in Congress who preach fidelity to the 9/11 Commission recommendations to behave so dramatically at odds with their spirit. The question Judiciary Committee members should have been asking Mr. Gonzales was not whether he had misled them — he clearly did not — but whether the TSP is still functioning well. The question the public should be asking those senators — and with not much more civility than the senators showed Mr. Gonzales — is what are they going to do about it if the answer is no.

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