In the Arena

The Comey Testimony

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This is all too believable, but it needs some further explanation.
First, as many of you may be aware, I favor the NSA’s data-mining operation. As I understand it, it works like this: it’s a front-end computer program that is used to detect patterns of phone calls or emails coming into the US from known terror suspects overseas. If we arrest Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the program finds a pattern of calls from his cell phone to, say, a number in New York–and, further, that the recipient of the calls is his stockbroker, then the NSA can go to FISA court and ask for a warrant to check out the stockbroker’s private records to see if KSM was selling Spanish stocks before the Madrid bombings. The problem was that all the front-end activity–monitoring thousands of calls (but not tapping them, as I understand it)–was illegal under existing FISA law, mostly because it was new technology that the law hadn’t anticipated.

Now, what would a reasonable President do? He would ask for a revision of the FISA law to include data-mining. Not Bush. He insisted–to the outrageous extent described by Comey–on his Executive Privilege to declare data-mining legal. Why did he do this?
Because he believed the power of the President had been eroded and he had to make a firm Executive Privilege stand? Perhaps, initially. But ultimately this was politics: He and, no doubt, Rove figured the Democrats would make a civil liberties squawk and they’d be able to make the soft-on-terrorism argument in the 2006 elections, diverting attention from Iraq and all the other failures on his watch.

They tried in 2006, you may recall. But it didn’t work. The story became “illegal wiretapping” in media shorthand (somewhat inaccurately), and it’s in the American DNA, conservative and liberal, to be sensitive about such things. Quietly, with the election past in January, Bush put the NSA operation under the control of the FISA court.

I continue to believe in the importance of a carefully monitored, legal data-mining operation. I suspect most Americans would, too, if it were described to them in detail. But in this case, as in almost every case, the Bush Administration chose to play politics with a matter of national security, further dividing the country. What a plague he has been.