The World Is Not Going To End This Weekend

One of the biggest problems in the FISA debate is that a lot of the reporters writing about the subject seem to be seriously confused about the details of the legislative process. Take, for example, the lede to this write-up of yesterday’s action from the Politico:

House Democrats were unable to hold together their caucus on a key intelligence vote on Wednesday, as a coalition of Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats and liberals helped defeat a measure to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as the deadline approaches.

The measure, which failed 191 to 229, would have extended the bill an additional three weeks to work out differences with the Senate on the issue of granting immunity to telecom companies which aided the federal government in wiretapping.

FISA is not expiring this weekend. FISA was passed in 1978 and isn’t slated to expire ever. What’s going to expire this weekend is the Protect America Act, which gave the president some additional spying powers beyond those he enjoyed under FISA. And in fact, even that is misleading, because all that’s really going to expire is the ability to authorize new surveillance activities. The PAA allowed the government to authorize surveillance programs for a year, which means that any surveillance programs that have already been approved will continue to be authorized until August at the earliest.

What this means is that the only real effect of the PAA’s expiration is that if a new terrorist suspect comes to the government’s attention, and he makes a phone call or sends an email that passes through the United States, then the government would need to fill out the extra paperwork required to get a FISA warrant in order to surveil that call. This paperwork can be filled out after the interception begins, so we’re not talking about the NSA missing any important phone calls, we’re just talking about bureaucrats doing some paperwork. That’s a problem, to be sure, but it’s a pretty minor one.

Yet virtually every press account I’ve seen seems to accept the White House’s story that the expiration of the PAA would completely shut down terrorist surveillance activities. My guess is that this is a combination of ignorance on the part of reporters and the desire to make the story seem more dramatic. (And conservative pundits like Andrew McCarthy have made no effort to clear up the confusion) But it’s a real problem, because it may allow the president to stampede Congress into passing legislation they’ll regret later.

Update: Luckily, some journalists are paying attention. My friend (and Cato alum) Julian Sanchez has a write-up for Ars Technica that accurately describes the state of play:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has signaled that she may be prepared to face down the threat. “Even if the Protect America Act expires later this week,” Pelosi said in a statement, “the American people can be confident that our country remains safe and strong. Every order entered under the law can remain in effect for 12 months from the date it was issued.” Since many observers believe that the surveillance authorizations under the PAA are likely to be couched in quite broad terms, it is likely that intelligence agencies will be able to continue most surveillance without further authorization even if the bill does lapse. The ACLU has urged Congress to simply allow the PAA to expire.