On Wednesday, August 22nd, Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, gave an interview to the El Paso Times in which he made several misleading claims about the recent alterations made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The “Protect America Act” (or, more aptly, the “Police America Act”) put sweeping new changes to FISA in place that essentially gutted the law. Below, the ACLU sets the record straight.
Myth: The Protect America Act allows for the collection of foreign to foreign calls.
Reality: What McConnell isn’t saying is that the new law also allows foreign to domestic calls and, even possibly, domestic to domestic calls. Any communications that are “directed at” or even “concerning” the actual target may be sucked up. Such vague and ambiguous language gives law enforcement and the government far too much leeway. That means that Americans can and will have their calls and emails swept up. Safeguards must be in place to protect our rights.
Myth: It takes 200 man hours for a telephone number.
Reality: The math, courtesy of Wired.com: “In 2006, the government filed 2,181 such applications with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court. The court approved 2,176 2006 FISA Warrant Applications. That means government employees spent 436,200 hours writing out foreign intelligence wiretaps in 2006. That’s 53,275 workdays.” The numbers have been greatly exaggerated. Though, if it is merely a resource issue, there were and are bipartisan bills that would clarify foreign to foreign and give more resources.
Myth: Only 100 people in US are being surveilled.
Reality: Before this program was in place, perhaps. But after passage of the Protect America Act, intelligence authorities are allowed to pick up all these US communications as long as one party is outside of the US. It’s a game of semantics – they may not technically be the “target” but it doesn’t matter because Americans’ phone calls are listened to either way.
Myth: The “Protect America Act” requires a warrant for US persons.
Reality: Again – semantics. Only if the target is American. Those Americans receiving calls from “targets” will still have their communications swept up.
Myth: Retroactive liability for telecommunications companies’ involvement must to be addressed in September.
Reality: Remember that, when approached after September 11th, telecom company Qwest Communications opted out of the program. These companies had a choice. On top of that, the cases against them are years from being resolved and until we know exactly how involved these companies were, there should be no amnesty for those who chose to break the law.
Myth: Americans will die because of the public debate.
Reality: Years before the NSA’s wiretapping program was disclosed in the pages of the New York Times, the Bush Administration had been making it quite clear that terrorism suspects were being monitored. Terrorists are well aware that their communications are being scrutinized – that’s why they use code words. Having a frank and open discussion in the public square about the rights of Americans is the very essence of our democracy. To suggest that having a public debate about surveillance would cost American lives is the most sinister and manipulative claim to come out of this dialogue.
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