Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Congressman Markey Hosts Town Meeting on Wiretaps

Earlier tonight, Congressman Ed Markey hosted an emergency town meeting at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, for a discussion on whether the domestic spying on American citizens that President Bush has authorized is actually permitted by the constitution. On the panel were Mark Rotenberg of EPIC and Carol Rose of the ACLU of Massachusetts. While it wasn't much of a debate -- the panel and the audience were unanimously opposed to the president having authority to do so -- the forum was packed and very informative.

The forum opened up with some footage of President Bush talking about wiretapping in the 2004 elections. Congressman Markey produced a number of clips where Bush made the claim that wiretapping could only be done with the approval of a judge. Keep in mind that these warrantless wiretaps had been going on for nearly three years at that time those speeches were recorded. We all had a good chuckle over that.

The rest of the time was spent debunking the various claims that the Bush administration and his supporters have made regarding the NSA wiretapping. For instance, while apologists claim that getting permission from the FISA court for wiretaps is too slow or too restrictive, the reality is that the law allows officials to get permission retroactively up to 72 hours after the wiretaps are in place. Not only that, but out of the 19,000 applications the FISA court has seen since its inception, they have rejected only four. This doesn't seem like such a high hurdle that the administration couldn't have made the effort to follow the rules rather than simply asserting that they have the right to do whatever they want all along.

One of the more silly claims was that even talking about the surveillance program strengthens our enemies, as if terrorists were completely unaware that we have the ability to tap phones. If you assume that they knew that we had the technology, then what difference does it make to them if their phones are tapped with or without the approval of FISA? Frankly, the more I learn about the FISA court, the more I learn about how easy it is to get these kinds of wiretaps in the first place. Apart from that, no secret information is being asked for. No one that I know of is asking the government to make public all the secrets that they've presumably learned through this program or to release the names of their targets. What we should be having, though, is a conversation about whether we want the president to have the authority to unilaterally spy on American citizens through the NSA (and therefore, the Department of Defense).

The overarching theme of the event was that we are now in a period of Constitutional crisis. For some reason, the President seems to have decided that the Fourth Amendment no longer applies in the post-9/11 environment. His assertion of executive power is a slap in the face to an independent judiciary, so much so that one of the FISA court judges resigned in protest. Not only that, but claims that the wiretapping program was reviewed by Congress are just bogus -- Markey, the senior Democrat on the Homeland Security committee and the 14th most senior member of the House by length of service said he had no idea about the program until he read about it in the paper. Those that were briefed were forbidden by law from discussing the program in public, or even with other members of the Intelligence Committee. So much for checks and balances.

Probably the most disappointing part of the evening, however, was toward the end when someone in the audience shouted out "What do we do?" Rose mentioned two things, first she said to join the ACLU, or at least their mailing list. This was met with grumbles from the audience since I would imagine that three-quarters of them were only at the meeting because they heard about it on the ACLU's list in the first place. She then told us to make sure our Congressmen know our feelings about the issue, and that we support them. That was a little bewildering given that, at least for most of us, our Congressman was standing right there on the stage and could see exactly how we felt about it.

Congressman Markey did then take the opportunity to say that the best thing that we could do was to help Democrats take control of the House and Senate in 2006 -- if only to be able to hold hearings and have subpoena power over the administration. To accomplish this we should talk to our friends in other states and other districts. This went well with something that Rotenberg had said earlier: "You should not assume that people who didn't vote for the same person as you don't share the same concerns." I think that what people need to understand is that tinkering with Constitutional powers is forever. Even if you trust the current President to only bypass the Judicial and Executive when he has a really good reason, does that mean you want all future Presidents to have that power? Even Hillary?