How Big a Rubber Stamp?


As a few commenters noted yesterday, it's not clear whether the National Security Agency is now seeking warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for each U.S. target whose communications it monitors. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told The New York Times that Bush administration officials "have convinced a single judge in a secret session, in a nonadversarial session, to issue a court order to cover the president's terrorism surveillance program." That contradicts the administration's account:

The Justice Department said Wednesday that it had obtained multiple orders, or warrants, a week ago from the FISA court allowing it to monitor international communications in cases where there was probable cause to believe one of the participants was linked to Al Qaeda or an affiliated terrorist group.

"As a result of these orders," Mr. Gonzales told leaders of Congressional Intelligence and Judiciary Committees in a letter dated Wednesday, "any electronic surveillance that was occurring as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program will now be conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court."

Justice Department officials said that the FISA court orders, which were not made public, were not a broad approval of the surveillance program as a whole, an idea that was proposed last year in Congressional debate over the program. They strongly suggested that the orders secured from the court were for individual targets, but they refused to provide details of the process used to identify targets—or how court approval had been expedited—because they said it remained classified. The senior Justice Department official said that discussing "the mechanics of the orders" could compromise intelligence activities.

Since it's hard to see how explicitly saying, as opposed to strongly suggesting, that the warrants cover specific individuals would threaten national security, it sounds like the administration is deliberately obscuring the point for political reasons. Shocking, I know. But with congressional hearings focusing on this very issue, how long can the president and his men hope to keep things vague?