Dishonesty by the right on terrorists and eavesdropping

Democrats don't want to "kill" the NSA's eavesdropping program, and nobody claims that eavesdropping on terrorists "constitutes an invasion of privacy."

Published August 11, 2006 2:23PM (EDT)

It is difficult to imagine a more deceitful and dishonest exploitation of the U.K. terrorist threat than this assertion from lawyer John Hinderaker at the Powerline blog, an assertion being echoed by many right-wing commentators today:

"The Time account also includes this: '[A] knowledgeable American official says U.S. intelligence provided London authorities with intercepts of the group's communications.'

"We were able to do this because of the NSA's international terrorist surveillance program. If the Democrats succeed in killing that program insofar as it involves communications with one end inside the United States, on the ground that the program constitutes an invasion of privacy [emphasis added], the NSA will be able to break up terrorist plots overseas, but not ones that involve people (citizens or otherwise) inside the United States, and most directly threaten Americans."

Leave to the side for the moment the complete baselessness of Hinderaker's claim that the Bush administration used the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" to obtain information helpful in breaking up the British terrorist plot. There, Hinderaker is guilty only of rank speculation -- a sin that pales in comparison to the core dishonesty that lies at the heart of his argument.

What is so remarkable is Hinderaker's claim that Democrats want to "kill" the government's ability to eavesdrop on terrorists' conversations "that involve people (citizens or otherwise) inside the United States." That accusation is just outright fiction, an unquestionably and deliberately false statement.

Not a single Democrat in Congress wants to stop eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of terrorists -- neither international calls nor domestic calls. Nobody is against eavesdropping, and Hinderaker's warning that Democrats favor eavesdropping only for international calls but want to "kill" the government's ability to eavesdrop on all other calls is nothing short of a deliberate falsehood.

This point is so obvious, so self-evidently clear, that it should be unnecessary to point it out. The NSA eavesdropping scandal has never been about whether the government should eavesdrop. It is about whether the president has the right to break the law. Those who object to the president's illegal NSA program do not object to eavesdropping on terrorists. To the contrary, everyone favors eavesdropping on terrorists. The objection is to the president's illegal eavesdropping (i.e., in secret and without warrants) rather than eavesdropping in compliance with the law (i.e., with judicial oversight and approval).

We have a law in place, called FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), that expressly allows the government to eavesdrop aggressively, including on conversations in which one of the participants is in the U.S. Nobody wants to repeal that law. Nobody wants to remove the government's power to eavesdrop on domestic conversations.

Indeed, the FISA court has long been ridiculed as the "rubber-stamping" court because it virtually never rejects a request from the government to eavesdrop. The notion that the Bush administration would have been unable to eavesdrop on these terrorists had it complied with the law is a blatant falsehood, since there is nothing easier than obtaining FISA court approval to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists.

Not a single Democrat of any prominence (and, to my knowledge, not a single Democrat anywhere) is opposed to eavesdropping on telephone conversations that take place in the U.S. Not a single Democrat wants to "kill" the NSA eavesdropping program. Nobody is claiming -- as Hinderaker dishonestly says -- that eavesdropping on the communications of terrorists "constitutes an invasion of privacy."

The Senate, by a vote of 95-1, mandated judicial oversight in 1978 to stop the decades of eavesdropping abuses to which American citizens had been subjected. Every president from both political parties has complied with that oversight requirement without objection -- until the Bush administration began violating the law in secret.

Some political arguments rely on unconvincing reasoning. Some are misleading. And some are just deliberately dishonest. Hinderaker's claim that Democrats want to prevent eavesdropping on suspected terrorists where one party is in the U.S. -- a claim also made by numerous right-wing commentators who are trying to exploit the U.K. terrorist plot and previously by Karl Rove and others -- falls squarely into the last category.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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