THE BLOG
09/18/2007 01:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Spy Lies: McConnell on FISA

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, with the help of the rest of the Bush administration, has been telling fibs to get controversial wiretapping legislation passed. The so-called "Protect America Act" -- or as we at the ACLU call it, the "Police America Act" -- and the wiretapping laws it amended, have been greatly misrepresented.

Let's set some of the facts straight:

Myth: The "Protect America Act" permits the collection of foreign-to-foreign calls and doesn't implicate Americans.

Reality: Couldn't be farther from the truth. What McConnell isn't saying, is that the new law also allows the government to collect foreign to domestic calls and, quite possibly, domestic to domestic calls. Any communications that are "directed at" or even "concerning" someone overseas may be sucked up, even when one party to the communications is an American. That means that we can and will have our calls and emails swept up in this newly legalized dragnet.

Myth: It takes 200 man hours to get a court order to access a telephone number.

Reality: The math, courtesy of Wired.com: "In 2006, the government filed 2,181 such applications with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court. The court approved 2,176 2006 FISA Warrant Applications. That means government employees spent 436,200 hours writing out foreign intelligence wiretaps in 2006. That's 53,275 workdays." The numbers have been greatly exaggerated. Even if it is merely a resource issue, there were and are bipartisan bills that would streamline the application process and grant more resources.

Besides, I don't recall a "too-much-paperwork" exception to the Fourth Amendment.

Myth: Only 100 people in U.S. are being surveilled.

Reality: Before this program was in place, perhaps. But after passage of the "Protect America Act," intelligence authorities are allowed to pick up all communications as long as one party is outside of the U.S. It's a game of semantics -- they may not technically be the "target" but it doesn't matter because Americans' phone calls are listened to either way.

Myth: The "Protect America Act" requires a warrant for U.S. persons.

Reality: Again -- semantics. The government only needs a warrant if it is intentionally targeting a specific U.S. individual. It can, however, conduct mass un-targeted surveillance of all communications coming into or out of the U.S. In other words, the Fourth Amendment has been turned on its head and suspected terrorists will have more protections than innocent Americans.

Myth:Retroactive amnesty for telecommunications companies' involvement must to be addressed immediately.

Reality: Talk about corporate welfare. These companies broke the law, and now they want Congress to completely absolve them of any accountability. The only thing more disturbing than the phone companies violating our rights is that members of Congress are now discussing whether to foot the bill for the fines with tax payer money. They want to absolve the telecoms from pending lawsuits filed by citizens who have had their privacy violated, and instead have the government stand on trial in place of the companies.

Really - what incentive will companies have to protect our information in the future if there are absolutely no consequences for violating our privacy?

Myth: Americans will die because of the public debate.

Reality: Years before the NSA's wiretapping program was disclosed in the pages of The New York Times, the Bush administration had been making it quite clear that terrorism suspects were being monitored. Terrorists are well aware that their communications are being scrutinized -- that's why they use code words. Having a frank and open discussion in the public square about the rights of Americans is the very essence of our democracy. To suggest that having a public debate about surveillance would cost American lives is the most sinister and manipulative claim to come out of this dialogue.

Myth: The "Protect America Act" helped thwart a terror attack in Germany.

Reality: Whoops. That"s not true. In fact, after making this statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, DNI McConnell had to retract it.