Tuesday, May 09, 2006

NSA Surveillance Program: Historical Precedence

I saw this linked at Powerline. An interesting perspective when comparing how FDR dealt with a program very similar to the NSA program that is drawing so much flack.
IN A BOLD AND CONTROVERSIAL DECISION, the president authorized a program for the surveillance of communications within the United States, seeking to prevent acts of domestic sabotage and espionage. In so doing, he ignored a statute that possibly forbade such activity, even though high-profile federal judges had affirmed the statute's validity. The president sought statutory amendments allowing this surveillance but, when no such legislation was forthcoming, he continued the program nonetheless. And when Congress demanded that he disclose details of the surveillance program, the attorney general said, in no uncertain terms, that it would get nothing of the sort.

In short, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt charted a bold course in defending the nation's security in 1940, when he did all of these things.
Sounds like a familiar logic.
Attorney General Jackson spelled this out in an April 30, 1941 letter to Rep. Carl Vinson, Chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs. Jackson reviewed the history of presidential refusals to disclose national security information, beginning with President Washington's 1796 refusal to disclose the details of treaty negotiations. Jackson warned that to provide such information to Congress would enable congressional personnel to leak details to the public, thereby tipping off targets and embarrassing informants. He said that disclosure would "prejudice the national defense and be of aid and comfort to the very subversive elements against which you wish to protect the country." And despite the fact that Congress was attempting to pass legislation pertaining to that very program, Jackson concluded that information regarding the surveillance "can be of little, if any, value in connection with the framing of legislation or the performance of any other constitutional duty of the Congress."

Jackson recognized that the president and Congress face different responsibilities, making agreement between the two branches difficult on such weighty, heated, time-sensitive issues. The Constitution gives the president the responsibility to act quickly and decisively to defend the national security. Congress, freed from such responsibility, could indulge other preoccupations. At one point, Jackson wrote Rep. John Coffee that "I am confident that if you and any of the other liberals in Congress sat in my seat and were held to some degree of responsibility for the perpetration of acts of sabotage and espionage in this country you would feel differently about the wire tapping bill."
Seems like the problem with leaks isn't new on this topic either. The last statement I highlighted also has a pretty good point. Today the finger pointing at Bush and the intelligence failures makes one wonder how anyone expects the government to provide protections if they forbid them any tools.

The difference that I see is that WWII was a well defined conflict between countries. Today's problems with terrorism is very vague. The time period of the conflict is also lacking in definition. I believe that the longer this continues, the more likely it is that this system will be abused.

The big problem today is that no one wants to fix FISA to make it easier to use. The politics of the NSA program has become another tool in political power grabs. As expected, the politicos would rather fight than provide intelligent resolutions to issues of security and freedom.

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