The Magazine

Disorder in the Court

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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Non--Justice intelligence agencies quailed before Judge Lamberth, too, it should be noted. The National Security Agency, for example, "began to indicate on all reports of terrorism--related information that the content could not be shared with law enforcement personnel without FISA Court approval." It used to be, not so long ago, that NSA's pre--9/11 timidity about such eavesdropping was universally considered a terrible mistake. The agency's "cautious approach to any collection of intelligence relating to activities in the United States," the Joint Inquiry concluded, helped blind it to the nature of al Qaeda's threat. NSA "adopted a policy that avoided intercepting communications between individuals in the United States and foreign countries." What's more, NSA adopted this unfortunate policy "even though the collection of such communications is within its mission," even though "a significant portion of the communications collected by NSA" has always involved "U.S. persons or contain[ed] information about U.S. persons," and even though "the NSA and the FBI have the authority, in certain circumstances, to intercept . . . communications that have one communicant in the United States and one in a foreign country."

"One such collection capability" mentioned in a heavily redacted section of the Joint Inquiry report sounds like it might be especially relevant to the current controversy over President Bush's Gestapo--like tendencies. It seems there's long been something called "the FISA Court technique," a category of electronic surveillance distinguishable from ordinary, FISA--regulated eavesdropping by its higher probability of capturing "communications between individuals in the United States and foreign countries"-but meeting the "approval of the FISA Court" just the same. Alas, "NSA did not use the FISA Court technique" against our nation's enemies in the old days, "precisely because" of its allergy to domestic surveillance. And "thus, a gap developed between the level of coverage of communications between the United States and foreign countries that was technically and legally available to the Intelligence Community and the actual use of that surveillance capability."

Sounds like it would have been a really, really good idea for NSA to have gone ahead and done this stuff back before 9/11. So why is it such an atrocity that President Bush has them doing it now?