Some days one wonders if these people have any sense at all – if they ever did.
Despite serious questions about the Bush Administration’s routine violations of FISA and the legality of their wiretapping programs in general, Adm Mike McConnell, who took over as Bush’s Director of National Intelligence just this past February, has, incredibly, sent a letter to Democratic Bush-Buddy Sylvester Reyes, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee asking for permission to intercept overseas messages between “terrorists”.
Citing a “period of heightened threat” to the U.S. homeland, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell asked Congress to “act immediately” to make changes in current law to permit the interception of messages between terrorist targets overseas, which he said now requires burdensome court orders.
In a July 25 letter made public yesterday, McConnell told the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), that he hopes Congress “will be able to act immediately . . . to provide the legislative changes needed to protect the nation in this period of heightened threat.”
At issue is a package of changes that the Bush administration wants in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to facilitate the continuation of its terrorist surveillance program. Congress has delayed amending the program pending further study.
Stepping up the pressure on lawmakers after the recently released terrorist threat assessment, McConnell said that “clarifications are urgently needed” in the law to enable the use of “our capabilities to collect foreign intelligence about foreign targets overseas without requirements imposed by an out-of-date FISA statute.”
He added, “As the head of our nation’s intelligence community, I am obligated to provide warning of threats of terrorist activity, and I have deep concern about the current threat situation.”
The underlying question hinges on modern technology: When communications between one foreign-located source and another foreign-located source travel through a U.S.-located terminal or switch, can they be intercepted without a warrant?
For those of you not intelligence experts, a little background:
Normally, when an intelligence agency wants information about contacts between foreign nationals on foreign soil, it works with and through the police/intelligence services of the country involved if we have friendly relations with it. It liaises with them, typically sharing information with them as a quid pro quo for getting the access/info they want.
If the country in question is an enemy, the intercept/information is gathered covertly by a US intelligence service, usually the National Security Agency in the case of electronic intercepts, although in the alphabet soup of the intelligence community, each agency also has its own shop for electronic eavesdropping and is often running ops not co-ordinated with any of the others.
In both instances, the question of warrants doesn’t really arise. In the former case, that’s because the US isn’t collecting the data. It’s simply being handed over by the country’s intelligence service. In the latter case, it’s because a domestic intelligence service – like the CIA or NSA – that is chartered to operate overseas already has in place the legal mechanisms that control its data collection assets, whether electronic or human – after all, that’s what they were created to do. And those controls are pretty skimpy, amounting to little more than approval by the station chief. Not exactly what you’d call “odious” or “burdensome”.
So why is McConnell suddenly pushing for an expanded power to intercept overseas communications when there’s already a well-established protocol for doing so? A protocol that has been in place for decades, and that respects the sovereign rights of other nations?
First, McConnell may not be able to liaise with other countries, or at least be finding it much more difficult than it used to be. Bush and Cheney, with a healthy assist from Rice, have poisoned our foreign relations with their arrogant, unilateral, “Fuck you, we can do what we want, we’re the Big Dog” approach to international “co-operation”. With the Bush Admin, co-operation is a one-way street. They give us whatever we demand and in return we give them…nothing. Not even a pat on the back.
For 6 years we’ve been treating foreign intel services as if they were errand boys or else ignoring them altogether. A reservoir of bad feeling has been building up. Nobody likes to be treated as if an outsider owns them in their own country, and they resent being snubbed on their home ground. As a result, they’re pissed off and uncooperative, so much so that requests for information-sharing are very likely being met with stony silence or sudden rafts of bureaucratic roadblocks.
Second, there’s the thorny issue of credibility.
The Bush Administration doesn’t have any.
No one trusts them. They’ve lied, conned, and cheated to get what they wanted, for the most part without regard to the needs or agendas of foreign govts, and with little or no regard for their sovereignty over their own territory. They don’t negotiate and they don’t bend. So far, whenever they’re stymied by a recalcitrant govt that won’t do what they want it to do, they’ve either browbeat it into submission or gone around it.
All of this has left a very bad taste in the mouths of our allies but it is as nothing compared to starting a war that most of them think was illegal and threatens world peace, occupying a sovereign nation and treating it like a client state a la the Soviets after WW II with Eastern Europe, building a secret prison system, blithely torturing detainees, and illegally wiretapping its own citizens. It is probably not too strong to say that the Bush Admin is loathed by most of its putative allies, who don’t trust it as far as they could throw the Brooklyn Bridge, and at this point don’t believe anything anyone from this administration says – with good reason.
Not much attention was paid to it here but a couple of years ago, when John Ashcroft was AG, he prosecuted a so-called terrorist while refusing to show the court his “evidence”. For reasons I won’t go into (too long and complicated), the case wound up in a German court in front of a judge who wasn’t interested in Ashcroft’s protestations of “national security”. He flatly refused to allow the prosecution to go forward unless the evidence was put before the court – he wasn’t going to send a man to prison on John Ashcroft’s say-so alone.
When Ashcroft finally produced the file, there was nothing in it. It was all rumors, gossip, innuendo, uncorroborated statements, and undocumented speculation. The case had been a sham – a political stunt – from the beginning, and the judge threw the case out. This was big news in Europe and made both Ashcroft and the Bush Admin a LOT of enemies, particularly in our allied law enforcement and intel communities.
So McConnell, not surprisingly, wants an end-around, a way to get the information that doesn’t require the co-operation of extremely reluctant, even hostile, foreign allies.
But it doesn’t explain why he isn’t simply going through channels to request the NSA or CIA do the eavesdropping. It’s their charter, they’re set up for it, and that’s what they’re there for.
The answer, I think, is in McConnell himself. He’s a long-time neocon and one of Dick Cheney’s army of sycophants, which means he has a deep distrust of the standard intel services. Ever since Newt Gingrich – who knows nothing whatever about collecting or handling intelligence – made a series of speeches a decade ago at the American Enterprise Institute claiming that US intelligence services, especially the CIA, were worthless because they refused to take seriously the crackpot theories of Laurie Mylroie, neocons have been trying to avoid dealing with them. Cheney specifically set up C-TEG and the OSP to stovepipe raw intel if it fit his Mylroie-inspired fantasies of Saddam as a terrorist Prof Moriarty in order to sidestep the CIA, which thought – quite correctly – that Mylroie was a kook.
That’s the stable McConnell comes from and that’s probably the reason he’d rather expand a questionable eavesdropping program than have to trust his own intelligence agencies. He can strip out of the raw data what he wants to believe or what supports his preconceptions without the inconvenience and annoyance of having to listen to Company analysts tell him that what he’s listening to doesn’t mean what he thinks it means – or anything at all, for that matter.
And that, in turn, means that he’s preparing the ground for producing more phony intel supporting…what? A war with Iran, perhaps?