In this weekâ€™s radio address, President Bush talked about the need to modernize the FISA to help with the battle against terrorism. After talking about visiting with the troops at Charleston Air Force Base this week, the president said, â€œOne of the most important ways we can gather that information is by monitoring terrorist communications. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — also known as FISA — provides a critical legal foundation that allows our intelligence community to collect this information while protecting the civil liberties of Americans. But this important law was written in 1978, and it addressed the technologies of that era. This law is badly out of date — and Congress must act to modernize it.â€
The president continued, â€œToday we face sophisticated terrorists who use disposable cell phones and the Internet to communicate with each other, recruit operatives, and plan attacks on our country. Technologies like these were not available when FISA was passed nearly 30 years ago, and FISA has not kept up with new technological developments. As a result, our Nation is hampered in its ability to gain the vital intelligence we need to keep the American people safe. In his testimony to Congress in May, Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, put it this way: We are â€˜significantly burdened in capturing overseas communications of foreign terrorists planning to conduct attacks inside the United States.â€™â€
President Bush then talked about what his proposed bill does, â€œMy Administration has proposed a bill that would modernize the FISA statute. This legislation is the product of months of discussion with members of both parties in the House and the Senate — and it includes four key reforms: First, it brings FISA up to date with the changes in communications technology that have taken place over the past three decades. Second, it seeks to restore FISA to its original focus on protecting the privacy interests of people inside the United States, so we don’t have to obtain court orders to effectively collect foreign intelligence about foreign targets located in foreign locations. Third, it allows the government to work more efficiently with private-sector entities like communications providers, whose help is essential. And fourth, it will streamline administrative processes so our intelligence community can gather foreign intelligence more quickly and more effectively, while protecting civil liberties.â€
He concluded by saying that this bill was needed to gather information on future terrorist threats. â€œOur intelligence community warns that under the current statute, we are missing a significant amount of foreign intelligence that we should be collecting to protect our country. Congress needs to act immediately to pass this bill, so that our national security professionals can close intelligence gaps and provide critical warning time for our country. As the recent National Intelligence Estimate reported, America is in a heightened threat environment. Reforming FISA will help our intelligence professionals address those threats — and they should not have to wait any longer. Congress will soon be leaving for its August recess. I ask Republicans and Democrats to work together to pass FISA modernization now, before they leave town. Our national security depends on it.â€
Here is what the president doesnâ€™t tell you:
President Bushâ€™s remarks make it appear as if the FISA law hasnâ€™t been changed since 1978. This isnâ€™t true. The FISA law has been changed numerous times, with the two most recent being in 1995, October of 2001, and an amendment in 2004. Here is what President Bush said in radio address the week after the 2001 FISA changes were passed by Congress. â€œSurveillance of communications is another essential tool to pursue and stop terrorists. The existing law was written in the era of rotary telephones. This new law I sign today will allow surveillance of all communications used by terrorists, including e-mails, the Internet, and cell phones. As of today, we’ll be able to better meet the technological challenges posed by this proliferation of communications technology,â€ Bush said. How can a law that he championed as dealing with modern technologies not even 6 years ago, be outdated today?
What the president means by, â€œMake the government work more efficiently with private sector entities like communications providersâ€¦â€ is that he wants this Congress to pass the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act of 2006, which was passed by the House but died in the Senate. The efficient work he is referring involves not having to get a warrant before wiretapping operations are launched. He always wanted the ability to force communications to turn over their records about their customers. The president used the term, â€œstreamlining the processâ€ in this weekâ€™s radio address.
The fastest way to streamline the process would be to give the president more power to act without a FISA warrant. This is what the 2006 billÂ was written to do. Â FISA warrants can be obtained in an hour or two. The only reason that I can see why the president would need to â€œmodernize FISAâ€ is to legally expand his domestic spying powers. Expanding these powers is dangerous because once one president has them, all future presidents have them. To me, the existing laws are enough.Â The Democratic Congress is firmly opposes to any domestic spying power grab that the president might try, so I would assume that President wonâ€™t get his expanded powers, but as todayâ€™s radio address shows, he isnâ€™t about to stop trying.
Jason Easley is the editor of the politics zone at 411mania.com. Â His news column The Political Universe appears on Tuesdays and Fridays at www.411mania.com/politics
Jason can also be heard every Sunday at 7:00 pm (ET) as the host of The Political Universe Radio Show at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/thepoliticaluniverse