Even White House Q & A on spying seems contrived

Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 03:20 PM

I had decided earlier that I wasn't going to launch into another "rant" about the White House today.  Then I made the mistake of going to the White House's web site looking for a transcript of the forum that discussed the NSA surveillance program after Alberto Gonzalez gave his vague defense of it.  I found my way to the "Ask the White House" page where Alberto Gonzalez answers questions supposedly submitted by ordinary, uncoached Americans.

The page describes itself as "where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House."

Uh huh.  Where "you" can ask questions.  If "you" are a panting administration sycophant.  Or a paid stooge planted to ask just the right questions.  Then, to top it off, he answers the only substantive question--why can't you get a court order under the emergency procedures of the FISA statute--by apparently misrepresenting what the statute says.

See for yourself.

Actual, verbatim questions on the page for Alberto Gonzalez (you can just picture him sweating it out, sitting at his computer with perspiration running down his forehead, picking up the side rail of his eyeglasses, and rolling forward to drop on the keyboard, right next to his sweaty palms):

--Laura, from Rocky River, OH writes:
Attorney General Gonzales, Can you explain how the Patriot Act protects our nation from terrorist threats? Thank you.

--Gregory, from Los Angeles writes:
Mr. Attorney General, is the patriot act, in any way, in violation of the laws and liberties we are ensured in this country?

--Joel, from Superior, WI writes:
Mr. Gonzales, Why is Mr. Alito the best choice for the Supreme Court?

--Tom, from Andover, Minnesota writes:
Do you expect the Patriot Act to be renewed? I agree with you Mr. Attorney General and the President that the Patriot Act and the NSA Terrorist Surveillance program are vital against terrorists.

--Sean, from Michigan writes:
I Want to get this national spying probelm straight. At that time the N.S.A was spying on known terrorist connections making international calls. it was not by any means affecting the typical american right?

--Marc, from Philadelphia, PA writes:
I was just wondering sir, with it now known that the NSA has been listening in on phone calls made in the US by al-qaida operatives, are there any safeguards in place to ensure that ONLY those phone calls are monitored?

--Jim, from Valentine, NE writes:
I know the NSA has to stay super secret, and even its oversight has to be limited in some ways. What kinds of oversight does the congress have over the NSA? Thanks

--Daniel, from Los Angeles writes:
Dear Attorney general Gonzales,the only thing about this issue that remains unclear to me is why the current FISA system of approval of wire taps is too slow. You are able to wire tap instantly, and deal with clearance or approval or warrants later, right? So, again, what is too slow? I really want to know the answer to this. [***see Alberto's answer, and the language of the relevant FISA provision, at the end of this post]

Man, these people are merciless!  How much can one Attorney General take?

And does the Attorney General resent these pull-no-punches questions that had him dancing like a rabbit on a hot plate.  No.  Ever the civil servant, Mr. Gonzalez closes with:

"Thank you very much for these probing and insightful questions. I'm gratified to have had the opportunity to share my views, and I wish you all well."

You know, I think some folks just might have pretended to be members of the public with questions.  I think those folks just might really be employed by the administration.  I think they were just making it seem like people wanted to know the answers to these questions, so that the White House could spin out its preferred answers in response.

But don't say anything to anybody.  I'd hate to spill the beans and end up helping out the terrorists.

Gonzalez's response to "why the current FISA system of approval of wire taps is too slow" (boldfacing added):

I appreciate your question, Daniel, as you raise an important point that I would like to clarify. You are referring to a widely discussed and often misunderstood provision in FISA that allows for so-called "emergency authorizations" of surveillance for 72 hours without a court order. But in order to initiate surveillance even under a FISA emergency authorization, it is not enough to rely on the best judgment of our intelligence officers alone. Those intelligence officers have to get the sign-off of lawyers at the NSA that all provisions of FISA have been satisfied, then lawyers in the Department of Justice would have to be similarly satisfied, and finally as Attorney General I have to be satisfied that the search meets FISA's requirements. All of this must happen before I can authorize even an emergency wiretap under FISA. And then we would have to be prepared to follow up with a full FISA application within the 72 hours - a cumbersome task. As you can see, FISA emergency applications are not so easily secured as some have implied: even for emergency applications, this extensive review process takes precious time. In order to fight the war on terror effectively, sometimes we must be able to take instantaneous action. I want to end by pointing out that although the NSA program may be faster, the FISA system has been a very important and useful tool in the war on terror particularly with respect to long term surveillance.

Language of FISA on "Emergency Orders"

50 USC, § 1805. Issuance of order
(f) Emergency orders
Notwithstanding any other provision of this subchapter, when the Attorney General reasonably determines that--
(1) an emergency situation exists with respect to the employment of electronic surveillance to obtain foreign intelligence information before an order authorizing such surveillance can with due diligence be obtained; and

(2) the factual basis for issuance of an order under this subchapter to approve such surveillance exists;

he may authorize the emergency employment of electronic surveillance if a judge having jurisdiction under section 1803 of this title is informed by the Attorney General or his designee at the time of such authorization that the decision has been made to employ emergency electronic surveillance and if an application in accordance with this subchapter is made to that judge as soon as practicable, but not more than 72 hours after the Attorney General authorizes such surveillance. If the Attorney General authorizes such emergency employment of electronic surveillance, he shall require that the minimization procedures required by this subchapter for the issuance of a judicial order be followed. In the absence of a judicial order approving such electronic surveillance, the surveillance shall terminate when the information sought is obtained, when the application for the order is denied, or after the expiration of 72 hours from the time of authorization by the Attorney General, whichever is earliest. In the event that such application for approval is denied, or in any other case where the electronic surveillance is terminated and no order is issued approving the surveillance, no information obtained or evidence derived from such surveillance shall be received in evidence or otherwise disclosed in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding in or before any court, grand jury, department, office, agency, regulatory body, legislative committee, or other authority of the United States, a State, or political subdivision thereof, and no information concerning any United States person acquired from such surveillance shall subsequently be used or disclosed in any other manner by Federal officers or employees without the consent of such person, except with the approval of the Attorney General if the information indicates a threat of death or serious bodily harm to any person. A denial of the application made under this subsection may be reviewed as provided in section 1803 of this title.

Did you see any requirement in there even remotely like the torturous process Gonzalez described?