President George Bush has urged Congress to approve modifications to American laws governing surveillance and wiretapping.
In his Saturday speech to the nation, the President said the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was out of date, and that it hampered US terror-busting spooks unduly. Under FISA, when feds or spies want to monitor communications in America they must obtain a secret warrant from the special star-chamber-esque FIS court.
In the wake of 9/11, President Bush secretly adopted the position that, in fact, he could order surveillance against Americans without approval from the FIS court, and did so. The National Security Agency (NSA) embarked on a massive automated data-mining'n'wiretapping programme targeted at communications between people in the USA and those overseas. This involved extensive cooperation from American comms providers.
The president's argument at that time was that his orders were legal, and he was allowed to circumvent FISA. It was also argued that FIS court supervision was too time-consuming and cumbersome, and was preventing the US spook community from defending America against terrorists.
The judge who presided over the FIS court at the time of 9/11 has since strongly refuted this, claiming that nobody could have been more keen to authorise wiretapping and surveillance than him. Indeed, he has said that he approved several surveillance operations by cellphone while stuck in traffic.
Assertions that the NSA's White House authorised US spying programmes were completely legal have not been fully tested, as the administration put the spooks back under FIS control after the matter became public.
It would appear that President Bush has come to accept that he hasn't the power to ignore FISA, as he now proposes to amend it.
"This week," he said on Saturday, "I visited with troops at Charleston Air Force Base. These fine men and women are serving courageously to protect our country against dangerous enemies. The terrorist network that struck America on September 11 wants to strike our country again."
But, in fact, the President wasn't on about some kind of deadly airborne attack against South Carolina, which could lift the fighting airpeople of Charleston AFB into the same courageousness bracket as grunts patrolling Baghdad or Anbar. He went on:
"To stop [the terrorists] our military, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals need the best possible information ... One of the most important ways we can gather that information is by monitoring terrorist communications... Today we face sophisticated terrorists who use disposable cell phones and the internet... technologies like these were not available when FISA was passed nearly 30 years ago... our nation is hampered in its ability to gain the vital intelligence we need to keep the American people safe."
It seems that Mike McConnell, US spy czar, told Congress in May that FISA meant his spooks were "significantly burdened in capturing overseas communications of foreign terrorists planning to conduct attacks inside the United States."