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Friday, January 11, 2008

How Important Can It Be?

Congress and the President have no higher responsibility than protecting the American people from enemies who attacked our country -- and who want to do so again. Terrorists in faraway lands are plotting and planning new ways to kill Americans. The security of our country and the safety of our citizens depend on learning about their plans. The Protect America Act is a vital tool in stopping the terrorists -- and it would be a grave mistake for Congress to weaken this tool.
-President Bush on renewal of legislation revamping the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, October 10, 2007

Back in October, it was of supreme importance that the "Protect America Act" -- a revamp of FISA -- be renewed. Democrats passed Bush's legislation, which legalized his previously illegal warrentless wiretapping of calls with a party outside the US, but included a "sunset provision," where Bush wanted the retooling to be permanent.

That sun sets next month and, once again, Bush's warrantless wiretapping will become an issue -- this time, in the middle of a presidential primary. Expect a crap storm. But remember this:

Associated Press:

Telephone companies have cut off FBI wiretaps used to eavesdrop on suspected criminals because of the bureau's repeated failures to pay phone bills on time.

A Justice Department audit released Thursday blamed the lost connections on the FBI's lax oversight of money used in undercover investigations. In one office alone, unpaid costs for wiretaps from one phone company totaled $66,000.

In at least one case, a wiretap used in a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act investigation "was halted due to untimely payment," the audit found. FISA wiretaps are used in the government's most sensitive and secretive criminal and intelligence investigations, and allow eavesdropping on suspected terrorists or spies.

Bush's super important, must-pass-or-we'll-all-die wiretapping is so damned unimportant to the FBI that they can't even be bothered to pay their damned bills. That explains the retroactive immunity for telcoms that Bush wants -- the guy from the collection agency demands it. The FBI is an arm of the Justice Department, which in turn is an arm of the White House. You'd think President Bush would be breathing over the shoulder of these fed tappers -- he's so keen on protecting America and all.

What this story proves is that the FISA revamp was a "cover your ass" piece of legislation for the Bush administration. They'd been caught in the commission of a crime and they needed to make the crime legal -- fast. So anyone who wasn't for the then-illegal wiretaps hated America and was siding with the terrorists.

Since warrantless wiretapping was legalized, how many times has evidence obtained through them been used in court? Zero. So much for the earth-shattering importance of the legislation. Now we find out that it's as important to the FBI as office supplies -- "We're out of pencils again -- oh, and by the way, we need to pay for wiretaps. Should I just get it from petty cash?"

It also points out the problem with all these "let's run government like a business" types -- they couldn't run an Amway franchise. What successful business gets its phone service cut for non-payment? Bush, being the first MBA president, has proven that he can't run government any better than of the private ventures he'd tried.

But Bush's failures aside, this is really about how trivial the FBI seems to think these wiretaps are. It's no wonder, given their track record of zero convictions -- or even indictments -- that they don't make them much of a priority. The real purpose of the "Protect America Act" is to cover the collective asses of the Bush administration and, the President hopes, the telecommunications companies who were complicit in his illegal and failed program. The legislation really serves no other purpose -- the rest is just window dressing.

The ACLU sees the timing of the sunset provision this way, "[T]he sunset will fall in the middle of the politically charged primary season, where it may be even harder to rein in intelligence activities already in progress than it is to resist expansion of those authorities in the first place."

I disagree. The underlying issue in this campaign -- for both Democrats and Republicans -- is that Bush sucks and can do no right. That's why Mitt Romney's having so much trouble buying the GOP nomination; he's the "Yay for Dubya!" candidate. He seems to believe that the only mistake Bush has made is not being an exaggeration of himself. Whatever Bush is doing, Mitt would do it more. That's a losing hand.

Democrats risk almost nothing by opposing this legislation -- even if they'd voted for it before. That's what the sunset provision was for. And they can point to the FBI's outstanding phone bill to demonstrate how seriously the Justice Dept. takes these wiretaps. Not only is this a Bushie brainstorm, but the FBI obviously doesn't give a crap about it. Why continue the program needlessly? It was a bad idea that went pretty much the way all bad ideas go. Bush has been given the benefit of the doubt, the program was tried, and the program failed. Go back to the original FISA, which has served us well enough in the past.

In my mind, standing by the renewal is the political loser. And every GOP candidate -- with the likely exception of Ron Paul -- will do just that. They have to -- their rhetoric demands it. Democrats should use their primaries as a bully pulpit to kill it, cremate it, and scatter its ashes to the four winds.

When the FBI can't even be bothered to pay for it, when FISA wiretaps are cut mid-conversation, we know how important they really think it is.


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