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National Security: Congressional Capitulation On Spying
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National Security: Congressional Capitulation On Spying

For the past several months, the White House has been aggressively pressuring Congress to expand the administration's spying powers and update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

August 6, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, and Matt Corley
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NATIONAL SECURITY

Congressional Capitulation On Spying

For the past several months, the White House has been aggressively pressuring Congress to expand the administration’s spying powers and update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). On Friday, President Bush bemoaned that Congress had not “drafted a bill I can sign.” “We’ve worked hard and in good faith with the Democrats to find a solution, but we are not going to put our national security at risk,” said Bush. The House surrendered and voted 227 to 183 on Saturday to endorse the administration-backed legislation, which expands the powers of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Bush hailed the bill, which he signed into law yesterday, because it would give the Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell “the most immediate tools he needs to defeat the intentions of our enemies.” But in reality, the White House had rejected a narrower compromise bill endorsed by both McConnell and the congressional leadership. As the New York Times noted, this episode was another attempt by the President to “stampede Congress into a completely unnecessary expansion of his power to spy on Americans.”

CONGRESS ‘PLAYING WITH HALF A DECK’: Since March, the Bush administration has been building a case for its FISA legislation. But it wasn’t clear until last week why it was pushing so urgently. On Tuesday, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) revealed on Fox News that earlier this year, a judge issued a secret ruling concluding “that the government had overstepped its authority in attempting to broadly surveil communications between two locations overseas that are passed through routing stations in the United States.” Boehner noted that this court order made “a key element of the Bush administration’s wiretapping efforts illegal,” a fact the White House has attempted to conceal from the public and many in Congress. “It clearly shows that Congress has been playing with half a deck,” said Jim Dempsey, policy director for the Center for Democracy and Technology. “The administration is asking lawmakers to vote on a very important piece of legislation based upon selective declassification of intelligence.”

WHITE HOUSE OVERRULED INTEL DIRECTOR: The House congressional leadership quickly worked with McConnell to hammer out legislation fixing the holes created by the secret ruling, which included “three points” that McConnell “said the Bush administration needed.” Yet instead of accepting the legislation, the White House took advantage of the opening “to write its warrantless wiretapping program into law — or, more precisely, to write it out from under any real legal restrictions.” “We had an agreement with DNI McConnell,” said Stacey Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), “and then the White House quashed the agreement.” Nevertheless, lawmakers “more concerned with protecting its political backside than with safeguarding the privacy of American citizens” caved in to the administration’s demands for increased spying powers. “The only purpose of [the White House-backed] bill is to protect this administration from its own political problems and cynicism, and its own illegal actions it has taken outside the law without any authorization,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who opposed the legislation, on the House floor on Saturday.

GONZALES HANDED EXPANDED SPYING POWERS: Provisions of the compromise bill attempted to address the “anachronism” of the 1978 FISA legislation, while imposing oversight on the White House. For example, it would have required audits by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General to check the Attorney General. It would also make the Attorney General “create guidelines to ensure that the government applies for a regular FISA warrant application when the government seeks to spy on a U.S. person.” Yet under the legislation Bush signed into law, Gonzales has “sole authority” to “intercept any communications believed to be from outside the United States (including from Americans overseas) that involve ‘foreign intelligence’ — not just terrorism. … Instead of having the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court ensure that surveillance is being done properly, with monitoring of Americans minimized, that job would be up to the attorney general and the director of national intelligence. The court’s role is reduced to that of rubber stamp.” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) called Gonzales’s expanded power “simply unacceptable,” in light of the fact that he has misled Congress on disputes over the administration’s spying program. On Saturday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who opposed the bill, sent a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) requesting legislation “as soon as possible after Congress reconvenes” to address the administration’s overreaching on spying.

UNDER THE RADAR

ETHICS — JUSTICE DEPARTMENT TRIES TO KEEP GUILTY PLEA OF CUNNINGHAM BRIBER SECRET: This morning, three judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will gather for an “extraordinary” meeting behind closed doors with lawyers from the San Diego U.S. Attorney’s Office. The judges will discuss “transcripts and documents related to the February guilty plea of Thomas Kontogiannis, a New York developer who admitted to a single count of money laundering” in the bribery case of convicted former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. “Federal prosecutors in San Diego have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep nearly all information about Kontogiannis’ Feb. 23 guilty plea in the Cunningham case under a nearly impenetrable seal of secrecy.” But federal Judge Larry A. Burns, “who initially agreed to the closed proceedings,” recently “said there was no longer a compelling interest to keep the agreement from the public” and decided “to unseal transcripts” of four plea hearings. “But prosecutors objected and invoked a provision of a federal law dealing with handling classified information as a reason why the documents have to remain secret. When Burns turned that request aside, the prosecutors went to the appeals court. That court agreed to hear the appeal — and ordered all material to remain secret.” “At a hearing on June 29, Burns pointedly noted that prosecutors never cited protecting classified information as a reason for closing the February hearings, and said raising it now was erroneous.” Kontogiannis, who was named as “Co-conspirator #3” in Cunningham’s guilty plea, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison for his involvement in the bribery scandal and is widely believed to be cooperating with the government.

MEDIA — WASHINGTON POST ADDS RIGHT-WING FLAMETHROWER RAMESH PONNURU: This week, National Review columnist Ramesh Ponnuru joins the Washington Post as part of its new Discussion Groups, a forum that allows readers to “join Washington Post staff and others in talking about politics, culture and other topics.” Ponnuru will lead the segment on the “future of conservatism” entitled “Right Matters.” He has amassed a name for himself by espousing radical right-wing views on social issues, particularly abortion. Recently, he penned Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, a book assailing the pro-choice views of progressives, published in order to influence the 2006 elections. In the book, Ponnuru alleges that “a coalition of special interests ranging from Planned Parenthood to Hollywood” now owns the Democratic party, “U.S. abortion laws are more extreme than the most progressive European countries,” and “liberals use animal rights to displace human rights.” He also claims that receiving an abortion is worse than killing a kitten and alleges that “journalistic elite is a functional ally of the party of death.” He has been noted to espouse scientifically-baseless views on stem cell research. The Washington Post has provided a leading forum for conservative columnists, including Charles Krauthammer, Robert Novak, and George F. Will.

AFGHANISTAN — IGNORED IN FAVOR OF IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN DESCENDS INTO CHAOS:  Afghan President Hamid Karzai is meeting with President Bush this week for a summit to discuss the “multitude of troubles” that have emerged in his country as the U.S. neglects Afghanistan to focus on the war in Iraq. According to the New York Times, “Afghanistan will produce another record poppy harvest this year that cements its status as the world’s near-sole supplier of the heroin source.” Additionally, despite the fall of the Taliban in 2001, “Afghanistan is still dominated by poverty and lawlessness” and is also plagued by “a hostage crisis, civilian killings, drug trafficking and a resurgent Taliban.” Meanwhile, Karzai reports no progress in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, saying, “We are not closer, we are not further away from it…We are where we were a few years ago.” In fact, the little help Afghanistan has received from the United States — military strikes on Taliban insurgents — have had devastating effects, as “the civilian deaths associated with the attacks have enraged the Afghan population and eroded Karzai’s authority.” Bush, however, seems oblivious to the serious obstacles faced by the Afghan government. He “is absolutely satisfied” with the military tactics that have caused the civilian casualties, according to White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. Furthermore, his main objective for the summit does not involve directly addressing the Afghanistan’s many pressing problems but rather is to “prod [Karzai’s] government to exert and extend its authority.”

THINK FAST

Most Americans disapprove of the Iraq war and of exporting democracy by force, yet neoconservative proponents of those policies advise the leading Republican presidential hopefuls. “There is an overwhelming presence of neoconservatives and absence of traditional conservatives that I don’t know what to make of,” said Richard Allen, former Reagan White House national security adviser.

The New York Times writes, “One part of the Justice Department mess that requires more scrutiny is the growing evidence that the department may have singled out people for criminal prosecution to help Republicans win elections.” One especially egregious case appears to be that of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman, whose conviction is “disturbingly weak.”

The Pentagon has lost track of about 30 percent of the weapons given to Iraqi forces, raising fears they have landed in insurgents’ hands. 190,000 AK-47 assault rifles and pistols have vanished. The GAO reported that the weapons distribution “was haphazard and rushed and failed to follow established procedures, particularly from 2004 to 2005, when security training was led by Gen. David H. Petraeus.”

Fox pundit Bill Kristol claimed the Minneapolis bridge collapse didn’t “symbolize any great failure of our infrastructure.” Bush said he would veto a bill that would increase the national bridge and highway maintenance budget from $4 billion to $5 billion. Sen. Chuck Schumer warned, “Our maintenance of our bridges and highways [has] been cut back for too long.”

The Huffington Post has introduced FundRace, a new online tool that discloses who is funding and influencing the 2008 presidential election. The feature allows users to easily find the names and addresses of contributors to presidential candidates.

“A suicide bomber slammed his truck into a densely populated residential area in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar on Monday, killing at least 28 people, including 19 children, local authorities said.”

“Eight months after Democrats vowed to shine light on the dark art of ‘earmarking’ money for pet projects, many lawmakers say the new visibility has only intensified the competition for projects by letting each member see exactly how many everyone else is receiving.”

And finally: Tiger Woods gets his own D.C. drink. The D.C. restaurant TenPenh’s drink mix of ginger limeade and passion-fruit iced tea — formerly called an Arnold Palmer — has been renamed for Tiger Woods. “It felt weird,” says a restaurant spokeswoman. “We couldn’t serve an Arnold Palmer in an Asian restaurant.”

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GOOD NEWS

The House approved an energy bill Saturday that would steer the nation toward cleaner fuels and greater conservation, including a requirement that all electric utilities produce 15 percent of their power from wind, solar, biomass or other renewable sources by 2020.”

STATE WATCH

CALIFORNIA: Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertifies Los Angeles County’s electronic voting machines, recognizing the risk of computer fraud.

MISSOURI: State program intended to redirect extra, unused prescription drugs to poor residents struggles.

IMMIGRATION: “State lawmakers are increasingly stepping into the void created by the failure of Congress to approve sweeping changes to immigration policy,” with many of the changes punitive.

BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: Media revelations from YearlyKos: Bloggers aren’t “chaotic,” carry political “clout.”

DAILY KOS: Conservative bloggers create a false controversy: what really happened at the YearlyKos military panel.

BELGRAVIA DISPATCH: Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack are definitively “guilty of rose colored glasses.”

HUFFINGTON POST: Most conservative presidential candidates dodge questions on use of executive privilege.

DAILY GRILL

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) “stood by his assertion that bombing holy Muslim sites would serve as a good ‘deterrent’ to prevent Islamic fundamentalists from attacking the United States. … ‘This shows that we mean business,’ said Bay Buchanan,” a Tancredo adviser.
CNN, 8/4/07

VERSUS

Tom Casey, a deputy spokesman for the State Department, said the congressman’s comments were “reprehensible” and “absolutely crazy.”
— CNN, 8/4/07