Today’s Must Read

February 18, 2008 8:41 am

Did you feel it at the base of your stomach when you woke up Sunday morning? That fear? No wonder: the Protect America Act finally expired Saturday night.

The nation is currently undefended. Well, that’s not true. The National Security Agency can no longer surveil terrorists. Well, that’s not true either. The NSA can continue surveillance of terrorist groups authorized under the Protect America Act for one year, and new warrants sought need to be authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court under the FISA law. The new warrants will mean more paperwork.

The president hit the airwaves for the fourth consecutive morning on Saturday to drive the fear home.

But Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, a man well acquainted with the taste of his own foot, put it unfortunately succinctly during an interview with NPR:

“It’s true that some of the authorities would carry over to the period they were established for one year. That would put us into the August, September time frame. However, that’s not the real issue. The issue is liability protection for the private sector. We can’t do this mission without their help.”

Perhaps realizing the unfortunate quotability of that phrasing, McConnell took to Fox News yesterday to reassert the direness of the situation. McConnell, once upon a time broadly respected by lawmakers of both parties, seems determined to destroy the vestiges of his credibility. Keep in mind that even The Washington Times ran a story that concluded the sunset of the Protect America Act “will have little effect on national security.”

McConnell’s main theme was once again guaranteeing immunity for the telecoms (“the private sector, although [they] willingly helped us in the past, are now saying, ‘You can’t protect me. Why should I help you?'”). But he also strove to make the case that returning to the FISA law would be a calamity — it would mean “increased danger.” Besides reintroducing the old canard that the FISA law had not been updated since 1978 and so was hopelessly unable to deal with modern technologies, McConnell argued that the necessary paperwork would cripple surveillance. “If I’m in court arguing for an authorization, then I’m missing a dynamic situation,” he argued. To listen to McConnell, you’d think the same people monitoring the surveillance were the ones stuck in court (actually, they have lawyers for that). And never mind that the old FISA law permits a period of surveillance prior to securing the warrant.

Of course, McConnell said way back in August that having a debate about surveillance was a bad idea, because “some Americans are going to die.” So you can understand his frustration that it’s still drawing on.

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