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August 7, 2007: Protect America Act Another ‘Three-Step Waltz’ by Administration to Garner New Power

Aziz Huq.Aziz Huq. [Source: American Prospect]Aziz Huq, an author and the director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, writes that the Protect America Act (PAA-see August 5, 2007) came about as a result of what he calls “the most recent example of the national security waltz, a three-step administration maneuver for taking defeat and turning it into victory.” Step one is a court defeat for the administration, for example regarding detainees at Guantanamo (see June 28, 2004), or the overruling of military commissions in 2006 (see June 30, 2006). The second step, which comes weeks or months later, is an announcement that the ruling has created a security crisis and must be “remedied” through immediate legislation. The third and final step is the administration pushing legislation through Congress, such as the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 15, 2005) or the Military Commissions Act, that, Huq writes, “not only undoes the good court decision but also inflicts substantial damage to the infrastructure of accountability.”
Step One: FISC Refuses to Approve NSA's Surveillance Program - In January 2007, the administration announced that it was submitting the NSA’s domestic surveillance program to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the secret court that issues FISA warrants for surveillance (see May 1, 2007). This was due to pending court cases threatening to rule the program in violation of FISA and the Fourth Amendment; the administration wanted to forestall, or at least sidestep, those upcoming rulings. In June, FISC refused to approve parts of the NSA program that involved monitoring overseas communications that passed through US telecom switches. Since a tremendous amount of overseas communications are routed through US networks, this ruling jeopardized the NSA’s previous ability to wiretap such communications virtually at will without a warrant. The administration objected to the NSA having to secure such warrants.
Step Two: The Drumbeat Begins - Months later, the drumbeat for new legislation to give the NSA untrammeled rights to monitor “overseas” communications, which not only traveled through US networks, but often began or ended with US citizens, began with appearances in the right-wing media by administration supporters, where they insisted that the FISC ruling was seriously hampering the NSA’s ability to garner much-needed intelligence on terrorist plots against the US. The White House and Congressional Republicans drafted legislation giving the NSA what it wanted, and presented it during the last week of the Congressional session, minimizing the time needed for scrutiny of the legislation as well as reducing the time available for meaningful debate.
Step Three: Passing a Law With Hidden Teeth - The legislation that would become the Protect America Act was carefully written by Bush officials, and would go much farther than giving the NSA the leeway it needed to wiretap US citizens. Instead, as Huq writes, “the Protect America Act is a dramatic, across-the-board expansion of government authority to collect information without judicial oversight.” Democrats believed they had negotiated a deal with the administration’s Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, to limit the law to addressing foreign surveillance wiretaps, but, Huq writes, “the White House torpedoed that deal and won a far broader law.” The law removes any real accountability over domestic surveillance by either Congress or the judiciary. Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi says that the PAA provides “unlimited access to currently protected personal information that is already accessible through an oversight procedure.” The law is part of the administration’s continual attempts to “eviscerat[e]” the checks and balances that form the foundation of US democracy.
Ramifications - The law includes the provision that warrantless surveillance can be “directed at a person reasonably believed to be located outside of the United States.” Huq writes that this is a tremendously broad and vague standard that allows “freewheeling surveillance of Americans’ international calls and e-mails.” He adds: “The problem lies in the words ‘directed at.’ Under this language, the NSA could decide to ‘direct’ its surveillance at Peshawar, Pakistan—and seize all US calls going to and from there.… Simply put, the law is an open-ended invitation to collect Americans’ international calls and e-mails.” The law does not impose any restrictions on the reason for surveillance. National security concerns are no longer the standard for implementing surveillance of communications. And the phrase “reasonably believe” is uncertain. The provisions for oversight are, Huq writes, “risibly weak.” Surveillance need only be explained by presentations by the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General to FISC, which has little room to invalidate any surveillance, and furthermore will not be informed of any specific cases of surveillance. As for Congress, the Attorney General only need inform that body of “incidents of noncompliance” as reported by the administration. Congress must rely on the administration to police itself; it cannot demand particulars or examine documentation for itself. The law expires in six months, but, Huq notes, that deadline comes up in the middle of the 2008 presidential campaign, with all the pressures that entails. And the law allows “the NSA to continue wielding its new surveillance powers for up to a year afterward.” The law, Huq writes, “does not enhance security-related surveillance powers. Rather, it allows the government to spy when there is no security justification. And it abandons all but the pretense of oversight.” [Nation, 8/7/2007]

Entity Tags: Mike McConnell, Detainee Treatment Act, Bush administration (43), Aziz Huq, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Military Commissions Act, National Security Agency, US Supreme Court, Philip Giraldi, Protect America Act

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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