Thursday, August 22, 2013

"When The President Does It, That Means It's Not Illegal"

Secret Court Rebukes Administration, NSA on Surveillance:
A federal judge sharply rebuked the National Security Agency in 2011 for repeatedly misleading the court that oversees its surveillance on domestic soil, including a program that is collecting tens of thousands of domestic e-mails and other Internet communications of Americans each year, according to a secret ruling made public on Wednesday.

The 85-page ruling by Judge John D. Bates, then serving as chief judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, involved an N.S.A. program that systematically searches the contents of Americans’ international Internet communications, without a warrant, in a hunt for discussions about foreigners who have been targeted for surveillance.  
Beyond the irony of a "secret court" issuing a ruling on a "secret surveillance program," the Obama Justice Department is now fessing up to the program's over-reach in an attempt to "gain control" over the story.
The Justice Department had told Judge Bates that N.S.A. officials had discovered that the program had also been gathering domestic messages for three years. Judge Bates found that the agency had violated the Constitution and declared the problems part of a pattern of misrepresentation by agency officials in submissions to the secret court. 

The release of the ruling, the subject of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, was the latest effort by the Obama administration to gain control over revelations about N.S.A. surveillance prompted by leaks by the former agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. 

“The court is troubled that the government’s revelations regarding N.S.A.’s acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program,” Judge Bates wrote.  

“Contrary to the government’s repeated assurances, N.S.A. had been routinely running queries of the metadata using querying terms that did not meet the standard for querying,” Judge Bates recounted. He cited a 2009 ruling that concluded that the requirement had been “so frequently and systematically violated that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall ... regime has never functioned effectively.” 
Of course, the line of defense between the supposed rogue N.S.A. program, Holder's inept running of the Justice Department, and the president himself, is thick. The administration will claim it knew nothing of what the spy agency was doing, just as the Bush administration claimed the same thing back in 2006. If we learned nothing from Watergate 40 years ago, it is make sure the president is insulated from knowledge of the criminal (er, "rogue") activity of his underlings, make sure there's no coverup, and make sure there are no tapes saying to the contrary.

Speaking of which, the Nixon Presidential Library released another 340 hours of "secret" tapes from covering three months in mid-1973 (right up until the taping system was revealed by Butterfield under oath, then dismantled).  On it, Nixon can be heard "ranting" about this and that, talking to Reagan and Bush, Sr. (in what can only be described as awkward conversations), and even eavesdropping on the Brezhnev summit of that summer.

While the tapes offer yet another piece of the never-ending puzzle to the enigma that was Richard M. Nixon (another post, dear reader), it also makes one realize that such insights into the wrong-doings of our presidents will never again be as forthcoming. 

Now, the extraordinary lengths administrations go to in order to protect the office from charges of wrongdoing (the lack of records, the extreme "top secret" over-classification of materials in the name of national security, and so forth) means we'll never really know "what the president knew and when did he know it." And I'm not talking about just the current administration, but every president going all the way back to Reagan. 

"Burn the tapes," Nixon joked with Reagan as Iran-Contra unfolded back in 1986. And he did. And so did Clinton, and W, and Obama. They all did. Except, ironically, for Nixon. If it's true the "coverup is worse than the crime," then now there's no longer need for coverups because the crimes have just been redefined as actions in the name of national security. "Illegal? No, we're just trying to protect you."

Someone joked a comparison on twitter the other day: Nixon illegally wiretapped an office building and got run; Obama illegally wiretapped the American people and it's all good.

In hindsight, I'll take a "third-rate burglary" motivated by politics, over spying on the American people without their knowledge, any day of the week.

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