by Plutonium Page
Who here grew up during the Cold War? I remember being about 10-11 years old and watching a documentary on thermonuclear weapons. They had still photos of one of the thermonuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific - I'm not certain, but it might have been one of the Operation Ivy tests. Stuff like this photo, and this one (warning: large photos), with full description of what "fallout" was, etc.. I didn't sleep well for about a week after that; it didn't help that I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and knew there were thousands (yes, thousands) of nuclear warheads stashed all over the state, including right outside of Albuquerque.
Putting it mildly, many of us felt that the Cold War years were, as the rotten.com entry puts it, "...The scariest fucking period in the history of the world..." (check out the entry, it's quite good). From a non-emotional standpoint, that sentiment is expressed in numbers by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' "Doomsday Clock", which expresses the nuclear global security situation in terms of minutes until midnight. You can read a short history of the clock here (pdf); click here for a timeline. Its "highest points" (reflecting greatest threat) were at 1953 and 1984, when it was at two minutes and three minutes to midnight, respectively.
Now, what does all of that have to do with FISA and NSA surveillance? Well, the birth of FISA is explained quite well in this excerpt from James Bamford's book The Puzzle Palace, about the NSA. Obviously, the NSA could monitor foreign Soviet communications, and could monitor domestic (i.e. within the US) communications of anyone suspected of being an "agent of a foreign power" (conceivably, a Soviet spy). The request for such surveillance had to work its way through multiple steps before it was approved, in order to prevent warrantless surveillance of US citizens.
In other words, back during the Cold War days after FISA was signed into law in 1978, Americans were (conceivably) protected from unauthorized wiretapping by the NSA. The NSA could go about its business of keeping tabs on the Soviets, both suspected spies in the US, and Soviet communications abroad.
Ok, that's enough of the history lesson. What does all of this have to do with yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee questioning of Alberto Gonzales?
Well, according to Gonzales, way back when FISA was signed, "things were different", and of course you had to go through all of those pesky channels to authorize wiretapping. Because, of course, today's terrorism threat is so much greater than the threat to national security posted by the US and the USSR pointing a combined total of about 50,000 nuclear warheads at each other (approximately equal numbers on either side).
The following is an excerpt from the transcript of yesterday's hearing. All bold emphases are mine:
KENNEDY: Now, we were facing the issue of electronic surveillance at another time, in 1976, when we had the attorney general, Ed Levi, and President Ford. And they followed a much different course than you have followed.
We had a Republican president, Republican attorney general. We're talking about electronic surveillance. And as you know from the FISA, there are very sensitive provisions that were included in there that were directed foreign nationals that this committee was able to deal with and do it in a responsible way.
Why didn't you follow that pattern?
GONZALES: Sir, the short answer is is that we didn't think we needed to, quite frankly.
I've tried to make clear today that we looked at this issue carefully, decided that neither the Constitution nor FISA, which contemplated a new statute, would prohibit this kind of activity from going forward.
I might also say, this is a little different time, in terms of what existed in 1976. Of course, we are at war. And we have briefed certain members of Congress.
So it's not entirely true that we didn't reach out to the Congress and talk -- certain members of Congress and talk to them about this program and about what we were doing.
KENNEDY: Well, the point I'd say, we were facing a nuclear threat.
KENNEDY: We've got terrorism now, but it was a nuclear threat then. The Cold War was in full flow at that time. It was nuclear threat at that time.
And you know what Attorney General Levi did? He took a day and a half to have outside constitutional authorities to come down and advise him on the questions of the constitutionality of the legislation -- a day and a half.
So, Gonzales is basically saying "no, we don't need those official channels, because the threat to the US today is so much greater than it was during the Cold War." This is ludicrous, willfully ignorant, and above all, it symbolizes the Bush administration's dangerous arrogance when it comes to dealing with national security.