Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Loose Lips and National Security

(Updated and moved to top)

What timing. On the precise day that an extension of the Patriot Act was to be debated in the Senate, the New York Times chooses that moment to release a story they sat on for a year, headlined with the provocative title, Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts, written by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau.

The NY Times and such boosters in mainstream media (notably NPR) harp on how “patriotic” is the Grey Lady, willingly keeping this story under wraps in the interest of national security, at the request of the Bush White House.

What bilge. Couldn’t have had anything to do with the timing, whereby the NY Times has a partisan interest in affecting the vote on a Patriot Act extension. No connection to the pending release of Risen’s book, detailing the “secret” war on terror (from which this article (turns out) is an excerpt.

And the reporting. Reading the NY Times, it takes 5 full pages of the online version to glean the details of precisely how and where and with what target President Bush signed executive orders. These orders allowed the NSA to pursue specific, selected individuals when and only when direct evidence of intercepted communications with known terrorist entities include links to domestic sources (American citizens or otherwise).

The Times hypes this as affecting “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of American citizens over a three to four year period, later reports suggest 37 instances.

Damned if you do, surely damned when you don’t. The 9/11 Commission and screaming headlines at papers like the Times made much of less than a dozen vague NSA intercepts that would seem to suggest a forewarning of an impending attack immediately before 9/11 (without any operational or target details of course). “They didn’t act!” the story line went at the time.

Enough commentary. How about some background on actual intelligence gathering and privacy protections that reflect reality, rather than the fevered imaginings of Pinch and the gang, or the ACLU?

NSA and its many operations enforce stringent privacy and civil rights protections, guided, remarkably enough, by Presidential Orders. Any interceptor or analyst working for the Agency knows the drill for chance or incidental exposure to U.S. Citizens or any artifact of intelligence gathering that indicates communications involving U.S. Citizens. Immediate steps are taken to purge or sanitize or otherwise destroy any information related to U.S. citizens, and names and identities are redacted in any transcripts.

Before someone jumps on this fact as “destroying the evidence,” keep in mind that this takes place at the point of intercept or as soon as identity of citizenship is established, prior to any further analysis or reporting takes place. That, and the infamous “wall of separation,” quite properly imposed in these instances, prevents the Agency from passing any such intercept or intelligence to any law enforcement entities. This was the real reason the wall was established, to prevent intelligence activities to be directed domestically for law enforcement purposes.

So what changed, that caused the Grey Lady to get her knickers in a knot? (But keep them knotted for a year.)

In the aftermath of 9/11, the President signed an executive order that allowed the NSA, in very narrow circumstances of extreme import to National Security, to immediately act on and exploit links from known terrorist entities without court order. (These activities are ordinarily permitted via the FISA court, which can allow electronic eavesdropping if evidence of impending or ongoing terrorist activity can be sufficiently substantiated.)

The cases in point involved the capture of terrorist cell phones and laptops, in which information on terrorist contacts that included U.S. citizens. For those instances where a very strong likelihood or certainty of terrorist complicity existed, the President was prepared to issue an Executive Order allowing the exemption from the regularly defined FISA process. It’s gratifying from an oversight perspective – and perhaps dismaying from a public security standpoint – that such an exemption was so rarely granted.

When you start from the premise that the U.S. Government – or more precisely, a Presidential Administration and Congress run by an opposition political party – is the enemy, then partisans like the Times and their collaborators in the Senate can look at both sides of electronic eavesdropping, and damn both yes and no to collect, as the signs of a fascist or incompetent state.

(I predict these sorts of issues will immediately and magically evaporate as a President-Elect Hillary Rodham Clinton takes office, and whatever steps she takes will be either brave and courageous or wise and measured. Such is the partisan divide.)

When any factual, non-partisan history of the Global War on Terror will ultimately be written, historians may well marvel at the Herculean strength of civil liberty protections, and the deep professionalism with which our Intelligence services exercised such extreme restraint trying to sift mountains of intelligence, in finding the needles of warnings and indicators.

UPDATE: Peter Schramm at No Left Turns has more on the timing of the Times piece, as well as highlights from within the Times report, detailing the many ways Congress (including Democrat John Rockefeller) and the FISA court were completely informed of these exemptions (and exceptions) to normal FISA process.

FOLLOW-UP: Smash at the Indepundit has an excellent discussion of the harm potentially caused to our National Security, so good in fact that all I need to say is, "he's right." Go read if you haven't already.

Via Instapundit, with a hat tip as well to John Hinderaker at Powerline.

Links: Mudville Gazette, Froggy Ruminations, Blogotional, Basil's Blog, bRight & Early, PJ Media, Wizbang

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