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FISA Fight: Chertoff on NSA Wiretaps
March 10, 2008
In the last few weeks we’ve had Bush’s executive order which gutted the Intelligence Oversight Board, bring all "oversight" functions under the executive. We’ve had the the revelations from whistle-blower Babak Pasdar, Wikileaks published a purported letter from Cablevision Systems Corp. to the FBI showing that "the FBI using the Patriot Act to obtain information not related to terrorism. In this case customer data from Cablevision is obtained which is used for non-terror related investigations." And today was the WSJ’s explosive story on the massive scope of the NSA’s reach.
If that wasn’t damning enough, this information ends up in the utterly incompetent hands of Michael Chertoff at DHS. How bad is it? Check out this extremely well-timed interview by Jeff Stein, national security editor at CQ, with DHS director Michael Chertoff, who claims Sgt. Schultz style, "I know nuthink!"
Another government information pipe burst last week, leaking details of yet more possibly illegal taps on our e-mails and telephone calls.
But even as news broke that a wireless carrier had discovered a security breach traced to Quantico, Va., home to a U.S. Marine Corps base and the FBI Academy, Michael Chertoff was telling me that what the Department of Homeland Security does with such information is none of my business — or his, either, for that matter.
"All we get is product. We may get product that is incorporated in analysis, and we may not know exactly what the source of each is, or it may be generically described," Chertoff told me and a half dozen other bloggers gathered in a small room at the Ronald Reagan Building on March 3.
"I’m not going to speculate where it comes from," he added. Nor would he say where it goes or how it’s used….
Me [Stein]: Were you aware that this program was ongoing with the telecomm companies?
Chertoff: I don’t know what program you’re talking about.
Me: I’m talking about harvesting information —
Chertoff: I’m not — but you see, you’re assuming stuff you’ve read in the paper.
Me: I’m not. I’m asking you for information.
Chertoff: I’m telling you I have received — we get information from the intelligence community. It can be collected from a variety of sources. I don’t know which program it comes under. I don’t know whether it’s got a warrant or doesn’t have a warrant. I don’t know whether it’s collected — I mean, as soon as I can contextually tell where it’s collected or not collected.
So I don’t know if it’s under this program or that program. None of that is known to me. All I know is, incorporated in the massive intelligence we get is all these different streams of intelligence, which help us decide whether we need to do something to protect the country or not.
I can’t verify your assumptions concerning whether something was under this program or that program. I have no basis to accept your characterization of harvesting, which doesn’t strike me as having any legal significance….
Beyond the question of basic competence, the problem here is pointed out by John Rollins, who had been chief of staff to Chertoff’s predecessor, Tom Ridge. Illegally obtained information–obtained from those warrantless wiretaps–could have gone out to local law enforcement.
"Setting aside the fact that the secretary is a former federal court judge who spent a career in the Justice Department, and also has a staff of lawyers conversant in civil liberty and corporate liability issues, it’s pretty damn insincere for him to, at best, claim uncertainty, or at worst, maintain willful ignorance of not knowing how information on U.S. citizens is obtained or where it came from," Rollins told me by e-mail.
"One can’t be the benefactor of a piece of information while simultaneously claiming it is not my responsibility to figure out how the information landed in my inbox," he said.
These people are not to be trusted with our civil liberties, much less our national security. That a Democratic Congress is even thinking of giving these people expanded intelligence powers–and closing off any avenue left open to investigating just how far they’ve already over-reached by granting telco amnesty–is a travesty.
The FISA legislation should be tabled now. There is more than ample evidence to show that it would be far more dangerous to give this administration any more leeway on domestic intelligence than it would be to continue to operate under the existing, and adequate, FISA law.
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