Those of us who supported FISA reform last year did so for two reasons: 1. There is a real need to monitor conversations terrorists may be having with their associates in the US and 2. There is a real need to set legal limits on the government’s ability to monitor those conversations, to make sure that every domestic target is approved by the FISA court, and to make sure that any innocents swept up in the data-mining process are protected and their names expunged from any list of suspects. Those who opposed the program believed–correctly–that, despite the safeguards, the potential for government violations was substantial.
The bad news is that the NSA apparently has been overstepping the law (Add: including the outrageous monitoring of calls between a member of Congress and an alleged Muslim extremist.) The good news is that one of the safeguards in the law is a review procedure that seems to have the ability to catch the NSA when it’s overstepping–and that the illegal activities have been exposed, and quickly. I still believe that the government must have all the legal tools at its disposal to track and stop those who mean to do us harm. The FISA revisions codified those tools. It is infuriating that the government can’t seem to abide by them. But it’s a good sign that Eric Holder’s Justice Department is doing its job, calling out the NSA for its improper behavior. I hope that Holder’s vigilance sends a clear message to the NSA about its proper role–but if the illegal activity continues, those responsible should be fired and indicted.
Update and Clarification: On closer inspection–and clearer reading–it seems that the unlawful monitoring of the unnamed Congressman’s calls took place in 2005 and 2006, well before the new FISA law was drafted. It had nothing to do with the recent “over-collection.”
Again, the importance of this issue depends on how you see the government–as benign or malignant. There are some who see the government as perpetually benign and many others who see it as perpetually malignant. I’m in neither camp. Clearly, the covert instruments of government have been misused in the past, egregiously by the Nixon and George W. Bush Administrations (and perpetually, by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI). But I simply don’t see a concentrated, purposeful effort to spy on innocent American citizens–most of these cases involve inadvertent screwups. Indeed, I’m sure–given my volume of calls to and from Islamic countries–that I’ve been caught in the net on occasion. I don’t care. I’m far more concerned about the potential of terrorists to bring off another horrific event than I am about the federal government’s desire to create a Big Brother state. But, as I said above, if we discover instances of purposeful, illegal behavior by NSA employees, they should be fired and prosecuted.