Thoughts on FISA

Author: Rory B. Bellows

By a margin of 69-28 the United States Senate passed a compromise bill to overhaul the FISA program to include warrantless wiretapping and provide telecom companies with immunity. Barack Obama not only voted for the bill, but he voted to break cloture after previously promising to filibuster this legislation. Obama flipping his position is so old hat that it no longer merits the attention of even a headine or a lead. Nor is it even the point of this post. Nor is the point to beat the Democrats over the head about the pathetic justification they used to hold the bill up. Democrats were against the bill, not on principled grounds, but because it eliminated major paydays for trial lawyers by shielding telecom companies from lawsuits.

This program has me conflicted. And I think it should conflict everyone. When the news was first leaked that the government was conducting warrantless wiretapping, my initial reaction was horror. I think everyone’s gut reaction should be negative. It’s healthy to mistrust government and if you don’t mistrust government enough to be concerned about them listening in on your phone calls, you probably need to read up on American history. The Bill of Rights is unique because it lays out the things government cannot do. There is an implicit mistrust of government in our founding documents.

Sure, we may trust the program because George Bush is in charge. Or maybe you don’t. I try and look at a program like this from a perspective of how I would feel if Hillary Clinton was in charge. If Hillary was in charge of this program I think she would use it to ferret people like me, send the ATF or something to kick my door in the middle of the night and drag me away to a reeducation camp where I would not be released untill I accepted the tenants of shared prosperity. There is something to be said for making government prove they need to take extraordinary measures to infringe upon your liberty.

There is also something to be said for the times we live in. Like it or not, and for whatever the reason, and I have my own theories that don’t line up with that of my party, there are people that want to hurt us and do us great harm. And like it or not, the state does have an interest in protecting us. Protecting us from the harm of strangers is one of the 3 or 4 legitimate functions of the federal government.

If there is some Pakistani national or something here communicating overseas with a terrorist cell and he wants to blow up a bomb in the middle of Times Square, then we are better off if the government can more easily monitor communications, find this guy and throw him down a manhole. Undoubtedly American citzens will get caught up in this program. We know this to be true.

The protections for Americans come in the form of an aggressive press and the agencies need to act responsibly. No matter how secret the President would have liked to keep this program, every aspect of it ended up on the front page of the New York Times. The NSA does not want to see its reputation ruined and the agency destroyed the way the CIA was in the 70s thanks to the Church Commission.

These are difficult issues to weight. My political philosophy has always lead me to tip the scales towards liberty. Making the government obtain a warrant, a minimal requirement as the vast majority of FISA warrants are approved, seems like the way to go. However, to enjoy the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness you must protect life. This is not an enthusiastic endorsement of this program. It will always trouble me.


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