Here They Go Again

by digby

I don't know if they're joking or what, but I can hardly believe they are going to try to pull this now:

President Bush's spy chief is pushing to expand the government's surveillance authority at the same time the administration is under attack for stretching its domestic eavesdropping powers.

National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell has circulated a draft bill that would expand the government's powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, liberalizing how that law can be used.

Known as "FISA," the 1978 law was passed to allow surveillance in espionage and other foreign intelligence investigations, but still allow federal judges on a secretive panel to ensure protections for U.S. citizens — at home or abroad — and other permanent U.S. residents.

The changes McConnell is seeking mostly affect a cloak-and-dagger category of warrants used to investigate suspected spies, terrorists and other national security threats. The court-approved surveillance could include planting listening devices and hidden cameras, searching luggage and breaking into homes to make copies of computer hard drives.

McConnell, who took over the 16 U.S. spy agencies and their 100,000 employees less than three months ago, is signaling a more aggressive posture for his office and will lay out his broad priorities on Wednesday as part of a 100-day plan.

The retired Navy vice admiral recently met with leaders at the National Security Agency, Justice Department and other agencies to learn more about the rules they operate under and what ties their hands, according to officials familiar with the discussions and McConnell's proposals. The officials described them on condition that they not be identified because the plans are still being developed.

Ties their hands? Well, the entire constitution "ties their hands" if you want to look at it that way. Wouldn't they be able to "protect us" better if they could just lock up anybody they find suspicious without any of these messy legal requirements? Wouldn't their jobs be easier if they could just shoot people they think might be breaking the law? Why are we tying their hands this way? Clearly, all these laws are keeping them from protecting the nation.

According to officials familiar with the draft changes to FISA, McConnell wants to:

_Give the NSA the power to monitor foreigners without seeking FISA court approval, even if the surveillance is conducted by tapping phones and e-mail accounts in the United States.

"Determinations about whether a court order is required should be based on considerations about the target of the surveillance, rather than the particular means of communication or the location from which the surveillance is being conducted," NSA Director Keith Alexander told the Senate last year.

_Clarify the standards the
FBI and NSA must use to get court orders for basic information about calls and e-mails — such as the number dialed, e-mail address, or time and date of the communications. Civil liberties advocates contend the change will make it too easy for the government to access this information.

_Triple the life span of a FISA warrant for a non-U.S. citizen from 120 days to one year, allowing the government to monitor much longer without checking back in with a judge.

_Give telecommunications companies immunity from civil liability for their cooperation with Bush's terrorist surveillance program. Pending lawsuits against companies including Verizon and AT&T allege they violated privacy laws by giving phone records to the NSA for the program.

_Extend from 72 hours to one week the amount of time the government can conduct surveillance without a court order in emergencies.

Uhm. No. An administration that has politicized the Department of Justice to the point where even the uber-hawkish, pro Bush Washington Post editorial page is concerned (see Greenwald here) cannot be trusted with more unfettered power to spy on its own citizens. Sorry. Fool me once, won't get fooled again.

I can hardly believe they are going to try to do this directly on the heels of the US Attorney scandal and worst of all this:

The FBI's Secret Scrutiny
In Hunt for Terrorists, Bureau Examines Records of Ordinary Americans

The FBI came calling in Windsor, Conn., this summer with a document marked for delivery by hand. On Matianuk Avenue, across from the tennis courts, two special agents found their man. They gave George Christian the letter, which warned him to tell no one, ever, what it said.

Under the shield and stars of the FBI crest, the letter directed Christian to surrender "all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person" who used a specific computer at a library branch some distance away. Christian, who manages digital records for three dozen Connecticut libraries, said in an affidavit that he configures his system for privacy. But the vendors of the software he operates said their databases can reveal the Web sites that visitors browse, the e-mail accounts they open and the books they borrow.

Christian refused to hand over those records, and his employer, Library Connection Inc., filed suit for the right to protest the FBI demand in public. The Washington Post established their identities -- still under seal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit -- by comparing unsealed portions of the file with public records and information gleaned from people who had no knowledge of the FBI demand.

The Connecticut case affords a rare glimpse of an exponentially growing practice of domestic surveillance under the USA Patriot Act, which marked its fourth anniversary on Oct. 26. "National security letters," created in the 1970s for espionage and terrorism investigations, originated as narrow exceptions in consumer privacy law, enabling the FBI to review in secret the customer records of suspected foreign agents. The Patriot Act, and Bush administration guidelines for its use, transformed those letters by permitting clandestine scrutiny of U.S. residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.

That was from 2005. Just last month we were told about this:

The Justice Department's inspector general told a committee of angry House members yesterday that the FBI may have violated the law or government policies as many as 3,000 times since 2003 as agents secretly collected the telephone, bank and credit card records of U.S. citizens and foreign nationals residing here.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said that according to the FBI's own estimate, as many as 600 of these violations could be "cases of serious misconduct" involving the improper use of "national security letters" to compel telephone companies, banks and credit institutions to produce records.

National security letters are comparable to subpoenas but are issued directly by the bureau without court review. They largely target records of transactions rather than personal documents or conversations. An FBI tally showed that the bureau made an average of 916 such requests each week from 2003 to 2005, but Fine told the House Judiciary Committee that FBI recordkeeping has been chaotic and "significantly understates" the actual use of that tool.

There is a reason that the constitution was written the way it was --- to protect free people from the corrupt likes of Karl Rove and his henchment in the powerful office of the presidency. Having been under the thumb of monarchy, the original Americans knew the evil that could be done in the name of the crown and they put in place safeguards.

No executive branch can be trusted in these matters. Not the Democrats and certainly not the Republicans who, in their modern incarnation, have shown themselves for the last forty years to be hungry for as much authority as possible and who seem to have a propensity to use the power of the presidency to spy on their domestic political enemies.

Check this out:

McConnell hinted at his discomfort with current laws last week during a speech before an audience of government executives, saying he worries that current laws and regulations prevent intelligence agencies from using all of their capabilities to protect the nation.

"That's the big challenge going forward," he said...

I love these small government conservatives, don't you? They hate everything about it except use its massive and ever growing police powers. That they truly love.

Here's why that comment sends chills down my spine and why it should send chills down yours. Intelligence agencies using "all their capabilities" against their own citizens in the name of protecting them is something only a Stalinist could love. There is no end to it. And when you hear the president of the United States and his entire political apparatus repeatedly saying that anti-war sentiment or domestic political opposition is "helping the terrorists" you don't have to be a genius to figure out what Mr. McConnell's "protecting the nation" might mean, do you?

This is very dangerous stuff and I hope the Democrats are not listening to the strategists this time who say that this is dangerous ground for them politically. Even if it is, they have an obligation to try to put a stop to this right now.

There is no reason that the government needs anything more than the already existing secret court to issue secret warrants that are good for 120 days. If they can't "protect us" with that kind of power then they are either incompetent or they are doing something so wrong that even a kangaroo court won't sign off on it. Loosening those rules is absurd on its face.