December 19, 2005,
I have no doubt that revelations in the New York Times that the NSA has been conducting selective and limited surveillance of terrorist communications crossing into or out of the United States will be immensely valuable to our enemies. I also have no doubt that these and similar actions can be legal, even when conducted without warrants.
How could that be? From the sound and fury of the last few days from politicians and pundits, you would think this is a development as scandalous as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's authorization to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr. But the legality of the acts can be demonstrated with a look through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). For example, check out section 1802, "Electronic Surveillance Authorization Without Court Order." It is most instructive. There you will learn that "Notwithstanding any other law, the President, through the Attorney General, may authorize electronic surveillance without a court order under this subchapter to acquire foreign intelligence information for periods of up to one year" (emphasis mine).
Naturally, there are conditions. For example, the surveillance must be aimed at "the acquisition of the contents of communications transmitted by means of communications used exclusively between or among foreign powers." Wait, is a terrorist group considered a foreign power? Yes, as defined in section 1801, subsection (a), "foreign power" can mean "a group engaged in international terrorism or activities in preparation therefore," though the statue language would explicitly apply to "a faction of a foreign nation or nations."
But isn't international terrorism that which takes place abroad, as opposed to homegrown domestic terrorism? Not exactly: Section 1801 subsection (c) defines international terrorism as, among other things, terrorist actions that "occur totally outside the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to coerce or intimidate, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum." So if you are hiding, making plans, facilitating, attacking, or intending to spread fear inside the US, and have a link abroad, you are an international terrorist. Quite sensible.
O.K. fine, but what about the condition that there be "no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party?" Doesn't that necessarily cut out any and all communication that is domestic in origin or destination? Well, not quite. Return to section 1801, subsection (i): "United States person," which includes citizens, legal aliens, and businesses, explicitly "does not include a corporation or an association which is a foreign power."
Well sure, but does that mean that even if you are a citizen you cash in your abovementioned rights by collaborating with terrorists? Yes you do. You have then become an "Agent of a foreign power" as defined under subsection (b)(2)(C). Such agents include anyone who "knowingly engages in sabotage or international terrorism, or activities that are in preparation therefor, for or on behalf of a foreign power," and even includes those who aid and abet or knowingly conspire with those engaged in such behavior.
Wait, that includes anyone, even citizens? Yes subsection (b)(1) is the part that applies to foreigners; (b)(2) covers everybody. And the whole point of the act is to collect "foreign intelligence information," which is defined under section 1801 subsection (e)(1)(B) as "information that relates to, and if concerning a United States person is necessary to, the ability of the United States to protect against sabotage or international terrorism by a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power."
Whoa, you say, that is way too much power for the president to wield without checks and balances! Well, true, and since Congress wrote this law, they included reporting requirements. The attorney general must report to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence 30 days prior to the surveillance, except in cases of emergency, when he must report immediately. He must furthermore "fully inform" those committees on a semiannual basis thereafter, per section 1808 subsection (a). He must also send a copy of the surveillance authorization under seal to the so-called FISA Court as established in section 1803; not for a warrant, but to remain under seal unless certification is necessary under future court actions from aggrieved parties under section 1806 (f).
This is significant, because it means that some of the same politicians who have been charging abuse of power may also have been briefed on what was going on long ago. The White House should get ahead of the story by noting which congressmen were informed of these activities, instead of allowing them to grandstand so shamelessly. It would also help if the White House released some information on how the surveillance has helped keep the country safe. What attacks were disrupted, what terrorists were taken down, how many people saved? A few declassified examples would be very useful to ground the discussion in reality rather than rhetoric.
So how do the revelations in the Times help the terrorists? Think it through if you were a terrorist and you believed (as most people seem to) that the NSA would ignore your communications if they crossed U.S. borders, your best move would be to set up communications relay stations inside the U.S. Terrorists are well known for their ability to find and exploit loopholes in our laws, and this would be a natural. For all we know our intelligence agencies have been exploiting these types of communications for years without the terrorists knowing it. Now they will fall silent, because now the bad guys know better. So New York Times writer James Risen will sell his book, the Times will increase circulation, politicians will beat their breasts and send out fundraising letters, and who will pay in the end?
You can answer that one.