Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, writes in an op-ed in this morning's New York Times that FISA, which requires court review of certain kinds of government wiretaps, "slowed -- and sometimes prevented -- our ability to collect timely foreign intelligence." He urges Congress to renew the Protect America Act, a temporary measure passed this year that bypasses FISA, and is due to expire in February.
Having personally transcended outrage, mockery, and scorn, I am going to go ahead and take McConnell at his word.
He writes that FISA has "not kept pace with changes in technology" (FISA was created in response to the illegal government activities of the Nixon administration) and that, under FISA, "our experts were diverted from tracking foreign intelligence threats to writing lengthy justifications to collect information from a person in a foreign country". Bottom line? "The intelligence community should spend its time protecting our nation, not providing privacy protections to foreign terrorists".
Which raises the question -- if they know who the terrorists are, why not go get them? Why is McConnell spending his time fighting political battles in Washington, DC, which even if won, will only let him listen in on phone calls? Why does he want to divert our experts to listening to tapes when they could be out catching bad guys?
I can imagine one reason: monitoring known terrorists may lead to the capture of larger groups of terrorists. But, to me, that stands too great a risk of losing track of them, as occurred with bin Laden. Shouldn't McConnell and the US government capture these terrorists while they can? Why are they playing soft with them?
The other possibility, of course, is that McConnell doesn't actually know yet who the terrorists are, and wants to be able to eavesdrop on lots of private conversations of innocent civilians, with the hopes that that will turn up a handful of terrorists. But that's not what he's saying, and I'm prepared to take him at his word: he knows where they are, he knows who they are. He'd just rather listen in than stop them.