Who’s Afraid of Wiretaps?

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — the HPSCI, usually pronounced “HIP-see” — will take a classified briefing today on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). We presume the HPSCI members are well-versed in the FISA law itself, so this briefing will cover the current intelligence-gathering situation after the Protect America Act — which amended the FISA — expired on February 17th. In particular, it may include the matter of telecommunications companies’ immunity from lawsuits that arise from their cooperation with national security investigations.

We may hope that, after this briefing, the HPSCI members rise in support of the bill that recently passed the Senate, and pressure the House leadership to bring the matter to a vote. We remain skeptical, but optimistic. How else are we to live?

We wonder, however, at the subtle irony that on the HPSCI’s web page, http://intelligence.house.gov/, we are treated to the graphic of the Homeland Security Advisory System showing an “Elevated” threat level: “Significant risk of terrorist attacks.” How much different might that level be, were it not for our operatives’ ability to eavesdrop on potential terrorist communications? Should our elected leaders not give those operatives every possible tool to protect us?

Yes, they should; the question is whether they will.

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0 Responses to Who’s Afraid of Wiretaps?

  1. Gray Rinehart says:

    Thanks for that great historical reference.

    The most frustrating part of this, is that every lawmaker has this information available to them, and they use American’s fears of their own government as a political weapon.

    And plenty of people using the same medium we are now seem — or at least claim — to harbor that fear. I wonder if they type on their keyboards in the dark of night, with the shades drawn, and jump at every sound in case it’s the dark-suited men come to collect them. I’m reminded of the Jethro Tull song, “Lullaby,” that says

    There’s folk out there who’ll do you harm
    So I’ll sing you no lullaby

    It seems most of those fearful people also live in the “they wouldn’t be mad at us except for what we’ve done to them” camp — i.e., the “blame America first” camp — and so remain unwilling to admit to the dangers from outside while they cry aloud at the dangers they perceive from their own people.

  2. dbergeron says:

    America’s ignorance on the subject of wiretaps is astounding. Since the invention of the telephone, the courts have routinely upheld the right/responsibility of the President to tap phones and instigate searches without warrants for National Security purposes. The Constitution recognized the need for intelligence gathering by the Government.

    Case in point: Truong Vs U.S. 1980.

    In 1978 President Jimmy Carter authorized warrantless wiretaps against Truong Hung and Robert Humphrey, a Vietnamese National living legally in the United States and an American citizen. The defendents were both convicted of espionage. They appealed their conviction based on violation of the the 4th amendment, unreasonable search.

    The conviction was upheld, based on the rationale explained earlier. The President has a Consitutional responsibility to protect the U.S. from foriegn threats.

    There are two key differences between this case and the current conversation on warrantless wiretaps. First, when President Carter authorized his wiretaps, the U.S. was not at war with anyone. Second, the government listened to every conversation Truong had on his phone and in his home for 265 days straight (the FBI entered his home and placed bugs on this phone and in his home).

    The government was not however, given carte blanche. The courts found that as soon as the decision was made to prosecute Mr. Truong, his 4th amendment rights kicked in and the information gleaned from the wiretaps as inadmissable. The government COULD use everything up to that point. As a result, the government could only use ~180 days of the wiretaps.

    Those same standards are in place today with the wiretaps issued under the current administration.

    If readers have access to a legal library, I strongly suggest you read the case. I personally found it fascinating. The case went to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

    The most frustrating part of this, is that every lawmaker has this information available to them, and they use American’s fears of their own government as a political weapon.