I’d like to take a moment to point out once again that our “prestigious” president doesn’t have the slightest clue about the Constitution. Yesterday he addressed the country to try a persuade Congress to pass the Protect America Act. This act makes it lawful for the government to eavesdrop on electronic communications (i.e. phone calls or internet usage) of “foreign intelligence targets in foreign countries” without a warrant from the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court. This act was already passed, but due to the incendiary nature of it a “sunset” clause was included, making the law expire on February 1st. It was then granted an extension for two weeks, which would be today. The President argues that it is necessary because our foreign intelligence service cannot be “bothered” with obtaining a warrant when an immediate risk is possible and eavesdropping may be the only way to mitigate it. However, this act is actually wholly unnecessary because FISA is able to grant warrants retroactively; that is, after the intelligence is collected. Thousands of warrants are granted every year, and only five have been denied in its entire existence. Further, the PATRIOT Act already amended FISA to include terrorist groups not supported by foreign governments, which was not originally allowed.
So why do we need the law? Simply put, even if they collect the information, if the FISA Court later says that no warrant should be issued then the evidence can no longer be used. So the law is needed to expand the conditions under which our foreign intelligence can conduct business without a court warrant because the President wants to conduct eavesdropping operations which are not currently legal.
And what operations would those be? Ones in which a person within the country who is not necessarily a target is a party. In other words, this would allow the government to eavesdrop on anybody inside the United States, providing only that they are communicating with somebody outside the United States who can be justified as a terrorist threat. This can be done, by the way, based upon the evidence created with the eavesdropping; it’s not necessary to justify it before the eavesdropping occurs as long as it can be justified after. It pretty much opens up any international communication to government eavesdropping, either via phone (which for the average person probably doesn’t happen a lot) or internet (which happens all the time.) These actions are explicitly against the law, and the President knows that a change to legalize such surveillance would never pass. So instead of just not doing it (i.e. only conduct legal operations) he is trying to eliminate the requirement to justify illegal operations under the guise of eliminating a barrier to collect legal information (a barrier which doesn’t actually exist).
The law would also force “third parties,” namely telecommunications and internet companies, to release this information to the government, even if they have moral qualms about doing so.
Unfortunately, in my humble opiniont, Congress does not seem to care. In fact, they want to pass this law. Fortunately, Bush is greedy. It’s not enough that he should get this loophole to circumvent the law. But he also wants “third parties” who knowingly and readily broke the law by giving this information to the Bush administration to be exempt from lawsuits from people whose conversations were collected and given to the government illegally before this loophole was passed. He claims that these companies should not be held liable for committing illegal acts when they were asked to do so by the President.
So his argument is that he has a legal right to ask people to do illegal things and they have a legal right to do them.
His obvious disillusion that the laws of this land do not apply to him is not new news (as is evident by his use of signing statements, which he has currently used in excess of 1,000 times). This is something which most people have known about for some time. Some people don’t care, which is scary, but I think even the people who don’t care have to understand he holds this view. (On second thought, maybe some of them don’t. Some of those people are pretty damn stupid, I must admit.)
But it’s not just his apparent disregard for working within the parameters of the legal system. He also apparently doesn’t understand why the Constitution has established a bicameral legislative body. In a speech he gave yesterday, he stated “If Republicans and Democrats in the Senate can come together on a good piece of legislation, there is no reason why Republicans and Democrats in the House cannot pass the Senate bill immediately.” So he believes that if one house of Congress passes a bill, then it should become law? The other house should just subject to their whims and blindly pass the legislation?
One wonders why when the Senate passes something bipartisan the House must do the same, but the President does not. Evidently the Constitution’s view of passage of law is relevant when he gets a say, but not when the full Congress does.
Not only doesn’t he understand how law should be passed, but he also gets a little fuzzy-headed on what exactly law says. He claims the February 1st expiration of the PAA was a “deadline they set for themselves.” Actually, the February 1st expiration, as I alluded to earlier, was a sunset provision designed to limit the bill’s effectiveness to a certain time period. This is not done as an arbitrary deadline Congress imposes, but rather as a way to get a bill passed when it contains language that many members of Congress would find objectionable. Often times this occurs because something must be done quickly, but Congress is worried about possible long-term implications of a law that seem like a good idea in the heat of the moment. A great example was the USA PATRIOT Act. When it was signed everybody was drunk with fear, but Congress was smart enough to know that when the dust settled they may not be as willing to cede some of the power they were granting to the President. Sure enough, after a couple of years they realized there were things in the bill which they just went overboard with, and so when the bill expired they passed a more reasonable PATRIOT Act (though some argue that it was not reasonable per se, everybody outside the White House would have to agree it was more reasonable).
Another example of a sunset clause was in the 1994 assault weapons ban, which President Bush opposed. When it was time to expire, he certainly did not view it as a deadline to fix and pass the bill again.