No Comment — August 7, 2007, 1:17 pm

The FISA Bamboozlement

When some one writes a history of the Bush Administration’s media bamboozlement—which will be an epic tome—I wonder how they will treat the entire saga of FISA evasions. It’s a classic story of a rogue government, blissfully ignoring the law, committing felonies on a daily basis, but convincing itself of its own righteousness in the process. A major media player, The New York Times, learns of the violations and then is bludgeoned into silence with a combination of appeals to patriotism and threats of criminal prosecution. It takes a year before they finally let the public on to what’s happened. And then the Administration lines up its echo chamber to attack the Times, and any other media source that dares to report on this project, the hottest thing since Cracker Jack™ introduced the Decoder Ring.

At the core of the bamboozlement has been a protestation: We’re doing this to protect you! This doesn’t affect good American citizens! It only affects Evil Foreigners. Yes indeed, who should care about those Evil Foreigners? Why if you’re concerned about Evil Foreigners, you must not really be American in the first place!

Excuse me, do you mind if we peek under the sheets and see if these claims of yours are truthful? Can’t do that. It’s super secret. Trust us.

At this point, of course, the reservoir of trust is tapped. And there’s good reason. Almost every super-secret-trust-us idea that has been sold to the American public over the last six years has turned out to be unalloyed bullshit. It has consistently been cooked up to serve a partisan political agenda. We trusted it into bogus wars and a long series of other misadventures.

And now, thanks to the Keystone Kops competence of the Bush apparatchiks, the sheet has slipped a bit. And we’ve gotten a good peak at the FISA program and how it operates. And guess what? It turns out not to be about Evil Foreigners at all. It’s about spying on Americans. Indeed, spying on Americans talking to their attorneys, that is, the most confidential sort of communications… and exactly the sort of thing that the Bush acolytes have a penchant for focusing in on.

In case you missed it, here’s a glimpse of FISA at work, courtesy of the Associated Press:

In open court and legal filings it’s referred to simply as “the Document.” Federal officials claim its contents are so sensitive to national security that it is stored in a bombproof safe in Washington and viewed only by prosecutors with top secret security clearances and a few select federal judges.

The Document, described by those who have seen it as a National Security Administration log of calls intercepted between an Islamic charity and its American lawyers, is at the heart of what legal experts say may be the strongest case against the Bush administration’s warrantless eavesdropping program. The federal appeals court in San Francisco plans to hear arguments in the case Aug. 15.

The charity’s lawyer scoffs at the often surreal lengths the government has taken to keep the Document under wraps.

The target here seems straight from the center of the current most active area of surveillance, namely charities with operations in the Middle East. A friend of mine who formerly held a senior position in the FBI puts it this way: “Targets are frequently identified on the basis of breathing while having Middle Eastern connections.”

Of course the biggest boon the Administration has had with its FISA safaris is that the victims of its criminal schemes don’t know they’re victims and can’t take actions to defend themselves. This is one of the few cases in which the surveillance targets learned they had been targeted, without warrants of approvals of any sort. A court will decide what to do about it shortly.

But the Administration continues its bamboozlement unabated, and few journalists ever challenge the torrent of falsehoods. Occasionally, however, someone points out that the emperor has no clothes. That honor falls most frequently to
“>Spencer Ackerman. Here’s his latest debunking:

The most conspicuous aspect of the Protect America Act of 2007 is that nowhere in the bill is there anything approaching individualized suspicion of who is to be monitored. The Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence can authorize surveillance on anyone “reasonably believed to be outside the United States,” provided that a “significant purpose” of the surveillance is the “acquisition of foreign intelligence information.” Nowhere do the two officials need to specify, to the FISA Court or the Congress, precisely who is under surveillance. They need only tell the FISA Court that their surveillance methods are geared at communications that probably outside the U.S., primarily. If communications involving people in the U.S. are part of that communication chain, so be it — as long as the government says it didn’t mean to acquire the information as a primary “target.” The FISA Court can only object, months after the fact, to the surveillance if those methods are “clearly erroneous.”

Furthermore, “directed targeting” and the National Security Agency go together like toothpaste and orange juice. The NSA does what’s called “traffic analysis” — searching for patterns of communication that merit suspicion. “They map who is in contact with whom, and how many times a day,” explains Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies, a critic of the Protect America Act. “They take that information and say ‘This e-mail address and this phone number has a lot of black dots in it (indicating frequent communication).” Then, using a computerized algorithm known as a “selector,” the NSA collects all communications emanating from a particular target, or targets — say, Ramadi in Iraq. “There’s no oversight of those selectors,” Martin says. “The only legal check on them (in the bill) is that they have to be (looking) for foreign intelligence purposes.”

Sometime soon you’ll hear an Administration apologist explain that, while he can’t really tell you anything about the surveillance program that has been crafted to circumvent FISA, because it’s super-secret, it only involves Evil Foreigners, so you have nothing to worry about. When that happens, note the moment. Somewhere in the world, an angel is being waterboarded. (H/t to Jon Stewart).

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