The New Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
I have been following the new FISA Amendments Act of 2008, but I have refrained from chiming in, as many others have been doing terrific blogging on the issue. Of particular note:
* Marty Lederman, The Privacy-Protective Components of the New FISA Law
I’ve been particularly dismayed at the Democrats’ strategy in dealing with the FISA Amendments. Why bother to try to negotiate a FISA compromise with a presidential administration that has shown nothing but contempt for the law to begin with? The Bush Administration, instead of going to Congress and requesting a change in the FISA, went ahead and blatantly violated that law. And the Administration said it would continue to violate the law, so what’s the pressing need to fix the FISA, especially when negotiating with an Administration that only will meet you about 2% of the way? Why force Obama to make a difficult choice about voting on the law, risking either looking weak on security or like a sell-out? Why not wait a few months and then pass a law with a new administration, one that will hopefully be easier to negotiate with? And how is this law any more binding on a president who says he has the right to violate a law based on his Article II powers?
Future presidents can learn a lot from all this — do exactly what the Bush Administration did! If the law holds you back, don’t first go to Congress and try to work something out. Secretly violate that law, and then when you get caught, staunchly demand that Congress change the law to your liking and then immunize any company that might have illegally cooperated with you. That’s the lesson. You spit in Congress’s face, and they’ll give you what you want.
The past eight years have witnessed a dramatic expansion of Executive Branch power, with a rather anemic push-back from the Legislative and Judicial Branches. We have extensive surveillance on a mass scale by agencies with hardly any public scrutiny, operating mostly in secret, with very limited judicial oversight, and also with very minimal legislative oversight. Most citizens know little about what is going on, and it will be difficult for them to find out, since everything is kept so secret. Secrecy and accountability rarely go well together. The telecomm lawsuits were at least one way that citizens could demand some information and accountability, but now that avenue appears to be shut down significantly with the retroactive immunity grant. There appear to be fewer ways for the individual citizen or citizen advocacy groups to ensure accountability of the government in the context of national security.
That’s the direction we’re heading in — more surveillance, more systemic government monitoring and data mining, and minimal oversight and accountability — with most of the oversight being very general, not particularly rigorous, and nearly always secret — and with the public being almost completely shut out of the process. But don’t worry, you shouldn’t get too upset about all this. You probably won’t know much about it. They’ll keep the dirty details from you, because what you don’t know can’t hurt you.