Yesterday, National Review Online ran a misleading and misguided editorial on the FISA debate. The editorial states that "Last year, a FISA-court decision required judicial authorization even in those cases where the government sought to monitor terrorists communicating with each other outside the United States." This is doubly misleading.
On the one hand, the FISA ruling only held that a warrant was needed to install wiretaps on US soil to intercept foreign-to-foreign communications as they pass through US infrastructure. No one has ever claimed that FISA has jurisdiction over communications that occur entirely outside of the United States. Second, both sides of the FISA debate in Congress agree that the law should be changed to explicitly exempt foreign-to-foreign communications from FISA oversight. Every serious legislative proposal in Congress, including the one the House passed last November, changes this aspect of the FISA rules. So it's extremely misleading to present this as if it's the heart of the dispute.
In reality, the president has threatened to veto the House's legislation for two reasons that have nothing to do with foreign-to-foreign communications: judicial oversight of calls that originate on US soil and the lack of amnesty for telecom companies. National Review's take on the latter issue is particularly wrongheaded:
Some Democrats oppose the legislation because they want the FISA court to have more authority. They laud it as a responsible manager of intelligence collection, even though tribunal is unaccountable and has a spotty record. (The most important part of the Patriot Act was its dismantling of the “wall” between agencies that obstructed intelligence gathering before 9/11. The FISA court tried to undo that part of the act, but was thankfully unsuccessful.) We have less confidence in the judiciary’s ability to manage wartime intelligence operations.
Other Democrats oppose the measure (Sen. Chris Dodd is threatening a filibuster) in no small part because of the telecom immunity provision. This objection is specious. The bill provides protection only for companies that acted on assurances from the administration that the program was lawful. If the companies cannot bank on such assurances, they have no incentive to cooperate in the intelligence collection that is a must if Americans are to be protected.
Rather than complaining about courts being "unaccountable," most of us call this "judicial independence" and consider it a virtue of our system of government. And an important part of judicial independence is the principle that a warrant from an independent judge, not merely "assurances from the administration," are required to permit searches of Americans on American soil. That's the whole point of having a warrant process. AT&T and Verizon's lawyers probably know this area of the law as well as anyone in the country. They can and should have done what Qwest did and told the NSA to come back when they had a warrant. Reports suggest that telecom companies that have chosen to cooperate with the government have made a healthy profit from doing so, while firms like Qwest have taken a financial hit for obeying the law.
If Congress lets the lawbreaking firms off the hook this time, they will have absolutely no incentive to obey the law (and protect their customers' rights) in the future. National Review's advocacy of amnesty for telecom companies is especially ironic because for the last year, they've been banging on about how amnesty for illegal immigrants "rewards lawbreaking" and breeds disrespect for the law. At least under the leading immigration reform proposals, immigrants would have been required to admit their lawbreaking and pay a fine. In contrast, NRO believes that lawbreaking telecom companies deserve immediate, blanket amnesty with no penalty or even admission of guilt. If we want to foster a culture of respect for the law, there's no better place to start than with some of the largest, most powerful companies in America.