Heretofore, I have refrained from commenting on the so-called "domestic spying" controversy because I felt the issue involved technological aspects that couldn't (or at any rate hadn't) been disclosed for security reasons, and, without understanding which, no reasonable conclusion on the matter could be reached.
The issue came to public attention when The New York Times, after sitting on the story for a year, disclosed it because the newspaper was afraid it was going to be scooped by a book about to be published by one of its own reporters, James Risen. The gist of the charge was that the Bush administration had been reading and/or listening in on communications (letters, e-mails and phone calls) between individuals, one in this country and one abroad, one or both of whom were suspected to be working with Al Qaeda or some other terrorist organization. The problem was that Congress, in the late 1970s, had passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which authorized the government to monitor domestic communications, provided it first sought and obtained permission from special courts established to rule on such requests. In the particular category of communications described above, however, the Bush administration had not asked FISA's permission first.
Had it therefore broken the law, and violated the general rule against governmental eavesdropping on private communications? The Democrats promptly alleged that it had, and called the practice "domestic spying." We were supposed to believe that the government was unlawfully listening in on conversations between American citizens in Dubuque and their friends and relatives in London or Paris, with Lord-only-knows what consequences for our sacred right to privacy.
The Bush administration insisted that, on the contrary, it was only engaged in "terrorist surveillance" and was interested solely in communications that might foreshadow future terrorist attacks like Sept. 11, or worse. And the only reason it hadn't asked for permission from a FISA court first was that, thanks to modern technology, such monitoring simply had to be done too quickly to accommodate the delays inevitable in going to court.
William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and author of How to Win Arguments .
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