Balance between liberty and security is at stake

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Sun Jan 1, 2006 17:25

The following found in the editorial section of the Southern Illinoisian (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Another View: Balance between liberty and security is at stake

Thirty years ago, after it was learned that the Nixon administration had co-opted the FBI and the CIA as part of a broad pattern of domestic surveillance, the Senate appointed a committee headed by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, to investigate U.S. intelligence agencies.

One of these was National Security Agency, which had developed a vast capacity during the Cold War to intercept overseas radio and telephone conversations. If an official in the Kremlin called his mistress on a non-secure phone, odds were the NSA was listening in. Sen. Church was stunned at the NSA's reach. In "The Puzzle Palace," his 1982 book that dissected the NSA, journalist James Bamford quoted Sen. Church on his greatest fear: that the NSA would turn around and use its capacity against U.S. citizens.

"No American would have any privacy left," Sen. Church said, adding, "There would be no place to hide."

His fears may have been realized. Two weeks ago The New York Times revealed that President George W. Bush had given the NSA permission to eavesdrop, without warrants, on overseas communication to and from the United States. A few days later, The Times added a troubling codicil: As part of its search for suspicious conversations, the NSA has obtained permission from telecommunications companies to tap into the switches that route calls to and from foreign countries.

Like a hard-pan gold miner searching for nuggets in the gravel of a streambed, sophisticated computer programs pan through millions of calls and e-mails, sorting them according to how frequently certain numbers are called and how often key words come up. "Pattern analysts" then hone in for clues to terrorist activities.

Someone in Florida e-mails someone else in Italy and mentions "al-Qaida" and "bomb" too often, and the NSA may have prick up its ears. Much of this is done without first getting warrants from the 12 special judges charged by the 1978 Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act with reviewing applications for eavesdropping on U.S. residents.

In some cases, insiders say, intelligence agencies first establish a pattern and then apply for warrants. While this may seem logical, it runs headlong into the pesky FISA requirement that a target is "an agent of a foreign power." Demonstrating probable cause has been a particular problem for Bush administration snoops. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported last week that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court modified more wiretap requests from the Bush administration than from the four previous administrations combined. Mr. Bamford, the "Puzzle Palace" author, suggested that the judges' reluctance to grant carte blanche may have been the reason Mr. Bush decided to bypass the court.

Mr. Bush claims the executive powers of the presidency, combined with Congress' authorization to use force against al-Qaida in Afghanistan, give him the right to use whatever weapons are necessary to fight the war on terrorism. Among those apparently in agreement is Supreme Court Justice-designate Samuel Alito. In a brief written 20 years ago, Judge Alito wrote that the U.S. attorney general should be immune from lawsuits brought by U.S. citizens in national security cases. Both claims are too broad. The Senate Judiciary Committee will take up Judge Alito's confirmation when Congress returns next month.

Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., also plans to hold hearings into the president's decision to bypass the FISA court. The proper balance between liberty and security is at stake.

- St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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