Is White House abandoning warrantless surveillance, or just switching agencies?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 11:27 AM

Ever since the White House started to seemingly backtrack on its prior zealous insistence on warrantless surveillance--announcing that the FISA court now oversaw the NSA program, agreeing to turn over some documents to the Congress (see the preceding post), I've been wondering what the odds are that they really are backtracking, as opposed to simply playing another shell game.

First off, it wouldn't be hard for an administration this secretive and this power-hungry to simply switch spying programs from one agency to another, counting on it taking public watchdogs a while to locate and sniff out the details of the new program.  At which point, they claim to shut the new program down while simply transferring the spy functions to yet another agency.

Possible case in point:  reports that the FBI now has it's own program similar in many ways to the NSA program.

And keep in mind that the communications companies involved--phone and internet service providers--have never really come clean about what they've done to provide the government access to your communications.  For example, back in May of 2006, AT&T filed litigation papers which tried to

...offer benign reasons why AT&T would allegedly have a secret room at its downtown San Francisco switching center that would be designed to monitor Internet and telephone traffic...

all without ever acknowledging that such a room even existed.  It was the classic leagl argument that, "if it exists, it could be for a reason a lot more benign that the one asserted by the party trying to get information on it."  Statements that AT&T's lawyers tried to redact from public copies, but which were readable via cut-and-paste of the PDF docs, included this:

AT&T notes that the facts recited by plaintiffs are entirely consistent with any number of legitimate Internet monitoring systems, such as those used to detect viruses and stop hackers.

You don't have to be a genius to realize that if the alleged spy room did not exist, AT&T could rid itself of the lawsuit simply by claiming its nonexistence under penalty of perjury.  If you try the "if it exists" argument, it's a pretty damn good bet it does exist.

And if it does exist, how hard would it be for the government to simply send in FBI agents rather than NSA agents to conduct the data collection?

Add in the fact that Gonzalez's announcement that the NSA warrantless surveillance program will now be conducted pursuant to guidelines promulgated by the FISA court was very precisely worded, in a way that seems to allow the possibility of other surveillance programs going on unchanged......