Washington Insider with Ronald Kessler
In their efforts to demonize the American intelligence community, Democrats and the media are playing with our safety.
The latest example is the way these critics are minimizing and distorting warnings from Mike McConnell, director of National Intelligence, about how defenseless America would become if warrants were required to intercept terrorists’ calls and e-mails even when those communications are in foreign countries.
The issue should not be controversial. Going back to the founding of the National Security Agency in 1952, the government could intercept calls and e-mails of targets situated in foreign countries without a warrant. But because most such communications now pass through U.S. switching systems in fiber optic cables, a Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (FISA) court judge ruled on May 31 that intercepting such communications requires a court order.
Obtaining a FISA court order requires an average of 200 man hours of preparation. Often, people who speak Arabic, Farsi, or Urdu have to be pulled off tracking leads to possible plots to help prepare the applications. Moreover, by the time an order is obtained for a new targeted phone number, the call is finished.
Because of the ruling, tens of thousands of calls and e-mails were not being examined. Any one of them could have contained clues to an al-Qaida plot to detonate nuclear devices in Manhattan and Washington. As FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has told me, these are al-Qaida's twin goals.
In August, Congress — over the objections of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi — voted to continue to allow intercepts of calls based in foreign countries without
the need for a warrant. But already, Pelosi and other Democrats have vowed to gut that law, called the Protect America Act, before it expires on Feb. 5.
To illustrate the need for an extension of the revision, Director of National Intelligence McConnell recently cited a delay “in the neighborhood of 12 hours” to obtain a warrant under the emergency provision of FISA. The warrant was to listen to calls made last May by insurgents who captured American soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. The bodies of some of those captured have since been found; the other soldiers are presumed dead.
That example should have been enough to put the issue to rest. What could be more absurd than having to obtain a warrant to listen to conversations of foreign insurgents? But Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, accused McConnell of trying to “politicize the debate” over electronic surveillance by citing the soldiers’ case.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat who heads the House Intelligence Committee, blamed government officials, not the law. Reyes claimed an emergency request under FISA should take “only a few minutes” and “one call.”
When McConnell subsequently released a time line showing that the delay in obtaining a warrant was nine and a half hours, the press pounced. The Washington Post ran a story focusing on the difference between McConnell’s initial rough estimate of the delay to obtain an emergency warrant and the more precise time line he later released.
“Iraq Wiretap Delay Not Quite As Presented,” the headline over the story said. “Lag Is Attributed to Internal Disputes and Time to Reach Gonzales, Not FISA Constraints.”
The story claimed that the delay of nine and a half hours was caused “primarily by legal wrangling between the Justice Department and intelligence officials over whether authorities had probable cause to begin the surveillance.”
The delay included “nearly two hours” spent trying to reach then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was speaking to U.S. attorneys in Texas, to obtain authorization of the emergency application, the story said.
In what has become standard practice in the mainstream media, the Post buried the Justice Department’s response that the case “presented novel and complex issues that we had to resolve” in the 11th paragraph of the story.
In fact, based on the original intent of FISA, since the communications were in a foreign country, no warrant should have been required in the first place. The point of revising FISA was to make that clear so that such calls could be intercepted instantly. But since the revision had not been passed last May and the communications happened to be routed through the U.S., authorities were obliged to carefully line up the facts and examine all the legalities before applying for an emergency authorization.
If, as Reyes claimed, that process normally took only a few minutes and one phone call, it would be a sham exercise. Moreover, the time required to obtain authorization from officials like Gonzales under emergency conditions only underscores why tolerating such onerous legal procedures when Americans’ rights are not at stake is foolhardy.
Rep. Holt’s claim that McConnell was politicizing the issue by presenting a case history has become a standard tactic of many Democrats. If intelligence officials like Mike McConnell or military officers like Gen. David Petraeus cite evidence to back up their case, they are accused of either being pawns of the White House or of using scare tactics.
The Washington Post’s story illustrates how the media undermine the war on terror by obscuring the truth. In highlighting a difference of two and a half hours between McConnell’s rough estimate of the delay compared with the actual duration of the delay, the paper sought to undermine McConnell’s credibility.
The problem was not “legal wrangling,” the term the Post chose to apply to legal deliberations. The problem was that FISA had not kept up with technological changes and needed to be revised to make it conform to its original intent.
If al-Qaida succeeds at its goals, it could literally wipe out millions of Americans and institute a nuclear winter. Yet between the Democrats’ efforts to handcuff those who are trying to protect us and the mainstream media’s efforts to malign those officials and distort the truth about the issues we face, we as Americans are at the mercy of people bent on committing suicide.
Osama bin Laden, known to follow the media closely, has to be laughing.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of NewsMax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.