The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FISAAA, HR 6304), due to be voted on in the Senate on July 8, is a horror of a bill which essentially rips up the fourth amendment, leaving only sufficient shreds for Congress to clutch to its collective groin as a fig leaf. A quick summary of some of its bad features may be found on this ACLU webpage.
(As long as I’m throwing links around, here’s a .pdf of the original FISA as it was written in 1978 . It has been amended several times since.) [UPDATE: Cornell University has a copy of FISA as of January 2006, very nicely cross-linked with HTML.]
In Obama’s brief announcement that he would support the bill, he referred twice to a provision in the Act calling for an Inspectors General investigation. In his disappointingly disingenuous response to his anti-FISAAA supporters, he mentioned it yet again. That suggests this IG investigation is worth a closer look. The provision is set forth in Title III of the bill, pp. 95 to 101 of the PDF.
(It is not to be confused with the mandate, earlier in the bill at 702(l)(2), for ongoing oversight of each “element of the intelligence community” by its own individual IG, alluded to on the ACLU webpage.)
The IG investigation:
(1) Covers “The President’s Surveillance Program” – which is very broadly defined to cover all intelligence activity authorized by Bush between 9/11 and January 17, 2007. It would have been nice if it also covered the period between inauguration and 9/11, during which Qwest was asked to perform illegal wiretaps. But you can’t have everything.
(2) Is to be conducted jointly by all the affected IGs. And they are required to assist each other, not allow the investigation to be compartmentalized. To avoid having the effort led by an IG who happens to be a Bush stooge (most of them have not been), the Act asks the IGs themselves to pick their leader.
(3) Is authorized to expand the specific topics of interest to “any other matters identified by any such IG that would enable that IG to complete a review”.
(4) Authorizes any expansion of staff the IGs feel is needed to conduct the review.
(5) Requires the IG and their staff to be expeditiously granted security clearances. Heel dragging on clearances has been used by Bush to quash previous Congressionally mandated investigations.
(6) The report is to be submitted to Congress “not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act”, and must be unclassified, though it may have classified appendices. So no matter how much Bush stonewalls, there’s still going to be six months of Barack administration in which to do real investigation. And the product won’t be something to be whispered about only by the Gang of Eight behind soundproofed doors.
I see just one loophole in all this, and it’s that “not later than”. Bush could try to stonewall, and also try to force the IGs to submit their report before his term ends, so it contains only the information he felt like letting them see. Frankly, though, it’s not clear to me that he has an ounce of leverage to force a bad report out.
It sets a terrible precedent for the Telecoms to be granted immunity. It is an announcement to all players in the future: When the President tells you to do something you know is illegal, do it anyway, and you’ll get off scot free. But the central sticking point with the immunity provision has always been that the civil suit had been the last available avenue for prying open the secrets of Who Bush Really Spied On. Any investigation launched by Barack after the election would be drowned out in howls from the right wing and its captive media of “partisan witch hunt”. This IG mechanism provides another avenue of discovery, which happily affords no opening for those ritual howls. The right wing to a man will have voted for the investigation, and Bush (albeit with Addington helping him to cross his fingers behind his back with yet another signing statement) will have signed off on it.
The report may, of course, be born into the world with its infant wails unheard by the media. But Obama will at that point have the bully pulpit in his hands. It is the one method that could manage to get a genuine investigation under way without awakening the High Broderist wrath of the media, which is always as offended at investigations of Republicans as it is eager for investigations of Democrats. The facts, once out, might generate momentum of their own.
Of course, all those other terrible elements of the bill remain: the “exigency” rules which swallow all the other rules. The permission to listen to every single call in or out of the country. The fact that once the FISA court gives its blessing to a general method of wiretapping, it is not permitted to know or enquire what actual specific taps are laid, who is listened to or why. And so on.
The fact is, Bush will continue doing all those things, without notifying the FISA court, regardless of what the law may be. So will the passage of those nasties have any practical effect? Only if you believe either of the following propositions:
(1) Obama is planning to use this vote, not just as cover for the election, but so he can abuse the fourth amendment once in office. That strikes me as unlikely, even if (as I also think unlikely) the idea tempted him. He knows the press that gave George W an unending free ride will go back to Clinton rules, casting a hawk-like eye over every potential misstep. Or:
(2) If McCain entered the White House with only the old FISA in place, he would ignore the advice of all the neocons with whom he has surrounded himself, reverse Bush’s power grabs, and meekly follow the law. That’s also highly unlikely. It is not the law before whom he has been meek the last eight years; it is the demands and the conventional wisdom of the radical right.
So it could be argued that, from Obama’s point of view, that loathsome as it is <em>qua</em> law, the practical effect of FISAAA’s passage or defeat on who is actually spied upon will, in our post-rule-of-law era, be exactly nil.
From the point of view of a citizen who cannot read Obama’s mind, unfortunately, that argument utterly fails. It is an argument that we should trust Obama with tyrannical powers, when in fact as the Founders wrote, we should not trust even “the best of men” with them.
On July 8, it will become apparent that, will we or nill we, we shall perforce have to trust one or the other, Barack or Saint John, to love the Constitution more than power. Saint John has already declared his unshakable disgust even for habeas corpus. Though the choice may be one that would have made Adams and Jefferson weep, thanks to Saint John’s public capitulations on habeas, on torture and rendition, on use of coerced testimony, on choice of Supreme Court justices, it will also be a no-brainer.