Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Intel abuse: as if you needed more evidence

For all you scared, greedy, stupid, or cynical Representatives and Senators who voted for the FISA revisions last month, here’s a little something that got lost in the Friday Olympics-vs.-sex-scandal news dump:

WASHINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation said Friday that it had improperly obtained the phone records of reporters for The New York Times and The Washington Post in the newspapers’ Indonesia bureaus in 2004.

Robert S. Mueller III, director of the F.B.I., disclosed the episode in a phone call to Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, and apologized for it. He also spoke with Leonard Downie Jr., the executive editor of The Washington Post, to apologize.

F.B.I. officials said the incident came to light as part of the continuing review by the Justice Department inspector general’s office into the bureau’s improper collection of telephone records through “emergency” records demands issued to phone providers.

The records were apparently sought as part of a terrorism investigation, but the F.B.I. did not explain what was being investigated or why the reporters’ phone records were considered relevant.

While these cases probably didn’t fall under the direct purview of FISA/FISC (though we really have no way of knowing), it is yet another example of Bush Administration spying on journalists (Lawrence Wright, Christiane Amanpour). And, it should serve as a yet another wake-up call to lawmakers and citizens alike, reminding them that the Bush/Cheney obsession with warrantless surveillance has little to do with the legal pursuit of terrorists, and a lot more to do with the suppression of information and dissent.

The FBI now says that they have corrected the problem that led to this latest known incidence of illegal spying, but as both the New York Times and the Washington Post make clear, the Department of Justice has continued to reenact the same sorts of abuses, just under a different name. Without aggressive congressional oversight and investigation, the arrest and prosecution of lawbreakers, and a rewriting of a decade’s worth of Constitution-eroding laws, there are simply no guarantees that this sort of abuse won’t happen again—indeed, there is no real guarantee (beyond the occasional and absurd “trust me”) that the abuse has ever stopped. Be it the Patriot Act (I & II), the Military Commissions Act, the Protect America Act, or the recent FISA capitulation, Congress has repeatedly chosen the coward’s path—synonymous with the White House’s path—rather than exercise its rights as a coequal branch of government.

I have argued in the past that if we know of illegal administration spying on journalists and other non-suspects, and we know of pre-9/11 surveillance, then we for all intents and purposes know that these are not programs designed to fight some foreign terrorists threat. I have often wanted to ask Democratic leaders if they realize that their phone calls and e-mails are being swept up in Bush Administration dragnets—and then I want to ask them if they care.

You see, while the New York Times and the Washington Post have their lawyers to turn to when they are the victims of intelligence abuse (and the lawyers have been brought in for this current case), most of us only have our elected representatives to watch out for our Constitutionally guaranteed rights. If Congressional leaders can’t be convinced of the gravity of this situation, we’re all screwed.

And that’s a gold medal scandal.

(cross-posted on guy2k, The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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