Monday, December 19, 2005

Alberto Gonzales defends Bush's secret wiretaps

First, if you haven't read the original NYTimes article you can find it here. When I read it on Friday, I had to agree with Michelle Malkin's take that the important paragraphs were halfway into the 10 page online article:

What the agency calls a "special collection program" began soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, as it looked for new tools to attack terrorism. The program accelerated in early 2002 after the Central Intelligence Agency started capturing top Qaeda operatives overseas, including Abu Zubaydah, who was arrested in Pakistan in March 2002. The C.I.A. seized the terrorists' computers, cellphones and personal phone directories, said the officials familiar with the program. The N.S.A. surveillance was intended to exploit those numbers and addresses as quickly as possible, the officials said.

In addition to eavesdropping on those numbers and reading e-mail messages to and from the Qaeda figures, the N.S.A. began monitoring others linked to them, creating an expanding chain. While most of the numbers and addresses were overseas, hundreds were in the United States, the officials said.

Under the agency's longstanding rules, the N.S.A. can target for interception phone calls or e-mail messages on foreign soil, even if the recipients of those communications are in the United States. Usually, though, the government can only target phones and e-mail messages in this country by first obtaining a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which holds its closed sessions at the Justice Department.

Traditionally, the F.B.I., not the N.S.A., seeks such warrants and conducts most domestic eavesdropping. Until the new program began, the N.S.A. typically limited its domestic surveillance to foreign embassies and missions in Washington, New York and other cities, and obtained court orders to do so.

Since 2002, the agency has been conducting some warrantless eavesdropping on people in the United States who are linked, even if indirectly, to suspected terrorists through the chain of phone numbers and e-mail addresses, according to several officials who know of the operation. Under the special program, the agency monitors their international communications, the officials said. The agency, for example, can target phone calls from someone in New York to someone in Afghanistan.

OK so they're only tapping calls of people within a degree or two of separation from numbers obtained directly from terrorists computers, cell phones, and directories. That amounted to "up to 500 people in the US" and only on their international phone calls, so they're not listening in on that call to your spouse at work. AG Gonzales weighs in for the president:

Such wiretaps are legal, Gonzales told CNN, because the president received the authority when Congress passed a measure in the days after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, authorizing him to "use all necessary and appropriate force" to fight terrorism.

The measure meant the president doesn't need to get a court order to request such wiretaps, as called for in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), Gonzales said.

"And a very important aspect of engaging in war against the enemy is to engage in signal intelligence," Gonzales said. "Signal intelligence means that we have to know what our enemy is doing. We can't go into a war blindly."

And have we gotten any viable intelligence from these taps?

On Saturday, Bush acknowledged that he authorized the NSA to intercept international communications of people in the United States "with known links" to terror groups, and criticized the media for divulging the program. He said he has re-authorized the program about 30 times.

Although the NSA is usually barred from domestic spying, it can get warrants issued with the permission of a judicial body called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court. Bush's action eliminated the need to get a warrant from the court.

Gonzales said the president had elected to use his authority to order secret wiretaps because the NSA indicated that "we do not have the speed and agility in all cases" to get information about possible near-term planned terrorist attacks.

Gen. Michael Hayden, the head of NSA when the program began and now deputy director of national intelligence, told reporters Monday, "I can say unequivocally we have got information through this program that would not otherwise have been available."

While the prospect of the government listening in on all my conversations and monitoring all my emails is unnerving (although with most of that all I can imagine is whoever might be listening getting a good laugh at my stupidity) I don't have a problem with what was laid out in the NYT article: only numbers originally obtained from terrorists directly and then an expanding circle from there. And before you get all "Well, you don't know how much of an invasion it is" I have to say yes I do.

In a previous post I had poked fun at myself and the Patriot Act as it nearly prevented the fetching Mrs. Wookie and myself from buying our first house. To save money for a house we moved out of our apartment and in with family, getting a POBox for our mail. Well there's a provision in the Patriot Act preventing people with no permanent mailing address from qualifying for a loan, so we had to do some scrambling, rechange all mailing addresses to my in-laws address to demonstrate we were not nomads. The apparent reason for that provision is to make it easier for law enforcement to track possible safe houses and properties of terrorists, so that if they track the owner of a property for possible harboring terrorists, it doesn't lead to a anonymous POBox and a dead end. And as I said at the time, it worked out for us because as the act was designed it filtered non-threats (like myself and the fetching Mrs. Wookie) through just fine. So really I'm of the opinion that if you're not doing anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about.

Intel is too important to leave to chance. Sometimes you've got to take action, and that's what Dubya did. It's one of those things that makes me feel like the President is doing whatever is in his power to make this country safer from terrorists. You can't miss your "civil liberties" if you're dead...