Saturday, December 17, 2005

Unthinkable

The New York Times did what would have been unthinkable not long ago; it held off publication of the story that the Bush administration was spying on U.S. citizens without requesting the court order required by the law. In response to the story, the Senate did what would have been unthinkable four years ago; it failed to pass the reathorization of the Patriot Act.
The Washington Post has the story on why the Times was so reluctant to publish:
In a statement yesterday, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller ... wrote that when the Times became aware that the NSA was conducting domestic wiretaps without warrants, "the Administration argued strongly that writing about this eavesdropping program would give terrorists clues about the vulnerability of their communications and would deprive the government of an effective tool for the protection of the country's security."
"Officials also assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions," Keller continued. "As we have done before in rare instances when faced with a convincing national security argument, we agreed not to publish at that time."
Arlen Specter was quicker in his analysis of the legal questions raised by the secret domestic surveilance:
"There is no doubt that this is inappropriate," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who favored the Patriot Act renewal but said the NSA issue provided valuable ammunition for its opponents.
As for the legal checks, it seems that the safeguards that have been mentioned are those that were circumvented by the secret executive order. Under existing law, the FBI, not the NSA, is authorized to conduct domestic surveilance with a court order from a special court housed in the Justice Department. Warrants can even be issued up to 48 hours after the surveilance has begun.
It is hard to understand how this kind of timely, secret review could be an impediment in tracking down spies and terrorists. Likewise, it is hard to understand why we need a Patriot Act if the Bush administration will simply do what it wants anyway.

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