I dialed into the conference call yesterday held by “senior administration officials” to brief reporters on the “FISA modernization bill.” There were lots of long pauses and repeated phrases, but very little light shed on what the new law actually does and why it was necessary to grant the executive branch sweeping new power to eavesdrop without a warrant on American citizens in the name of “getting back to 1978″ (when the FISA statute was passed). Props go to the several reporters who, when their chance came to ask questions, first lobbied to have the entire call put on the record. Given that nothing was said that could be construed as remotely controversial or even particularly revealing, the reason given by the briefing officials — that they could be more candid on background — was not at all convincing. In fact, when the briefers were asked what, to me, is the most pertinent question — why had the Administration not been content with a narrow fix of the problem that brought about the “crisis” in the first place (the ruling by the FISA court affecting foreign communications that travel through U.S.-based servers and switching stations) — the egregiously unhelpful answer was: “We can’t comment publicly on court opinions or rulings.”
Today’s lead editorial in the New York Times slams the Democrats for allowing the bill to become law, as did (surprisingly?) a Washington Post editorial yesterday. The Administration and Congressional Republicans managed to outmaneuever the Democratic majority with surprising ease. Faced with a choice between passing the White House-backed broad expansion of wiretapping authority or leaving town for the month at a time when the intelligence community is (allegedly) picking up heightened chatter about a potential attack on the US., enough Dems chose to play it safe and vote for the bill that it became law. It’s the first victory for this President in a long time.