Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Follow Up: The Proverbial Hits the Fan

The “I” word -- as in impeachment -- is being uttered in serious terms for the first time in the Bush presidency.

No, Dubya didn’t lie about something as grave as having sex with an intern. It merely has to do with his secret directive to allow the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on Americans without any oversight. (See my “The Chicken Little Presidency” post of Dec. 18 for the background.)

Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, became the first major House figure to suggest impeaching Bush, while Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, excoriated the president for his

Renegade assaults on the Constitution and our system of laws [which] strike at the very core of our values and foster a sense of mistrust and apprehension about the reach of government.
Added Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, who was one of six Republicans to join Democrats last week in blocking approval of a new USA Patriot Act until some nasty little details in the House version of the legislation (included several pertaining to wiretapping and other forms of surveillance) can be ironed out or eliminated:
If you’re willing to give up your basic liberties in order to have temporary security, then you deserve neither liberty nor security.
(If that sounds familiar, it’s because Benjamin Franklin said something very similar 250 years ago.)

Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean, who is no Bush fan, opines that he is

[T]he first American president to admit to an impeachable offense.

Yes, the attacks come from predictable quarters, for the most part, and pigs will fly before Bush is impeached. But the seriousness of his transgression is not to be underestimated, or as the president himself might say, misunderestimated.


Despite administration protestations that the NSA is only spying on suspected terrorists, my educated guess is that the NSA is spying on all Americans – which is really, really bad in the most Orwellian sense -- and that fact will come out sooner or later now that the media feeding frenzy is underway and congressional hearings are being scheduled.

Meanwhile, some related odds and ends:

* In a breathtaking display of his administration’s trademark hubris, Bush and two senior aides argued yesterday that the NSA program was okey-dokey because it grew out of the president's constitutional authority and a 2001 Congressional resolution that authorized him to use all necessary force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

One aide, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, gave new meaning to the term "pretzel logic" by stating that Congress had authorized the president to go forward with such a surveillance program but the White House declined to seek explicit authorization because

We were advised that that was not likely to be -- that was not something we could likely get.

Let's take this out a little further: The post-9/11 congressional authorization was called the Authorization to Use Military Force. But as the name implies, it was meant to apply only to military force. That's how the Supreme Court read it when it agreed (by a narrow majority) that the authorization extended to enemy combatants.

The George Will of the Washington Post offers his usual cogent perspective:
On the assumption that Congress or a court would have been cooperative in September 2001, and that the cooperation could have kept necessary actions clearly lawful without conferring any benefit on the nation's enemies, the president's decision to authorize the NSA's surveillance without the complicity of a court or Congress was a mistake. Perhaps one caused by this administration's almost metabolic urge to keep Congress unnecessarily distant and hence disgruntled.

The administration's circumlocutions prompted this zinger in a Times editorial today:

Mr. Bush says Congress gave him the power to spy on Americans. Fine, then Congress can just take it back.

It makes one wonder what else is lurking out there that was "authorized"?

* There is speculation that the secret directive was a result of the NSA using a new covert search technology that you simply can’t get FISC-approved warrants for. (What the heck is FISC? See the post below this one for an explanation.)

Anyhow, the leading techno contender is a massive NSA global data mining project called Echelon, or something similar to it.

Notes Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly:
The problem is that Echelon has been around for a long time and no one has ever complained about it before — so whatever this new program is, it's something more than vanilla Echelon. What's more, it's something disturbing enough that a few weeks after 9/11 the administration apparently felt that even Republicans in Congress wouldn't approve of it. What kind of program is so intrusive that even Republicans, even with 9/11 still freshly in mind, wouldn't have supported it?
Others are suggesting reverse data mining. Under one such scenario, the protocols (such as email addresses, Web sites, common words used) in a laptop computer used by a captured Al Qaeda operative could be used to search millions of computers to look for similar protocols.

* Whatever the technology and its legality, the original Times story on the secret directive notes that it has resulted in some successes:
Several officials said the eavesdropping program had helped uncover a plot by Iyman Faris, an Ohio trucker and naturalized citizen who pleaded guilty in 2003 to supporting Al Qaeda by planning to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with blowtorches. What appeared to be another Qaeda plot, involving fertilizer bomb attacks on British pubs and train stations, was exposed last year in part through the program, the officials said.
* The president summoned Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller to the Oval Office on Dec. 6 in a futile attempt to talk them out breaking the story, which was published three days later.

Newsweek cuts to the chase in noting that
Bush was desperate to keep The Times from running this important story – which the paper had inexplicably held for a year – because he knew that it would reveal him as a law-breaker.
So why did The Times sit on the story for so long?

Keller’s explanation lends credence to the new covert search technology argument:
In the course of subsequent reporting we satisfied ourselves that we could write about this program — withholding a number of technical details — in a way that would not expose any intelligence-gathering methods or capabilities that are not already on the public record.
That explanation kind of works for me, although it does not erase my concern that The Times may have crossed the line into a journalistic no-man's land by revealing the existence of a super secret government program and therefore compromised it. I do know that the White House will be a heck of a lot more aggressive in going after the Times leaker than it was in the Wilson-Plame CIA leak case.

* Meanwhile, the editor of the defensetech.org Web site has been talking to current and former signals intelligence professions about the hubbub and says their reactions range "between mildly creeped out and completely pissed off."

But all of them, according to Noah Shachtman, emphasized that spying on Americans is way beyond the bounds of what they normally do no matter what conspiracy freaks may believe.

Says one pro:
It's drilled into you from day one that you should not ever, ever, ever under any f------ circumstances turn this massive apparatus on an American citizen. You do a lot of weird s---. But at least you don't f--- with your own people.

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