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January 6, 2006
Buyer's Remorse

The Democrats in Congress who have repeatedly been briefed on the NSA program on warrantless international intercepts appear to have contracted some weird kind of buyer's remorse. After more than four years of updates, during which they raised few objections to the program and issued no requests for its termination, suddenly one such member wants her money back. Jane Harman made headlines yesterday by writing a letter to the White House calling the program "illegal", a charge which mystified her Republican counterpart at many a briefing in the past:

In a sign of growing partisan division over domestic eavesdropping, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday defended the Bush administration's limited briefings for Congress on the secret program and accused the committee's top Democrat of changing her position on the issue. ...

The Intelligence Committee chairman, Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, was responding to a statement Wednesday by Representative Jane Harman, Democrat of California, that the law requires that the full House and Senate Intelligence Committees be informed of the N.S.A. program. By briefing only the Republican and Democratic leaders of both houses and of the committees, the administration violated the law, Ms. Harman wrote in a letter to the president.

In a letter to Ms. Harman, Mr. Hoekstra said the briefings were in compliance with the National Security Act of 1947, which says the committees should be informed of intelligence activities, though "with due regard for" the need to protect secrets.

"The committee has been informed, in good faith by the president of the United States," through briefings he and Ms. Harman attended, Mr. Hoekstra wrote.

He said he was "surprised and somewhat bewildered" by Ms. Harman's letter because she had not previously complained about the briefings. Mr. Hoekstra told Ms. Harman that he found her letter to the president "completely incongruent" with her previous position. "In the past," he said, "you have been fully supportive of this program and the practice by which we have overseen it."

Harman certainly never called for an end to the program, and even in her letter now doesn't actually demand that the NSA stop reviewing warrantless intercepts. Like so much of what the Democrats say on national security, they want to complain about the sausage-making process while gorging on the bratwurst that results. Since the New York Times revealed the program's existence weeks back, Congressional Democrats have produced only two letters expressing any kind of reservations about the program -- and one of them endorses the White House view that presidential authorization was the only approval needed for it to continue.

In the meantime, since the story appears to have gone nowhere in terms of damage to the administration -- if anything, it's helped bolster his image as a wartime president protecting America -- the Democrats and the media want to start going on a fishing expedition. Earlier, Andrea Mitchell suggested that the NSA might have spied on a CNN reporter using a cell phone overseas without explaining what evidence gave rise to that hypothesis. Yesterday, perennial Congressional crackpot John Conyers got 26 other paranoids in the House to join him in demanding to know whether the NSA listened to international communications involving politicians or media:

Also Thursday, 27 House Democrats sent a letter to President Bush asking for information about the National Security Agency eavesdropping program, including whether communications from or to members of Congress and journalists were intercepted. ...

The security agency's program, disclosed last month in The New York Times, involves eavesdropping without court warrants on the telephone calls and e-mail messages of people in the United States who officials say have been linked to terrorism suspects overseas. ... Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, released the 27 Democrats' letter. It asks for copies of all legal opinions on the spying program; the numbers of Americans singled out; and the names of agencies getting the information the agency collected.

The Times report has been specific about the kinds of communications captured and shared by the NSA under the program, reporting that the communications involved at least one end being outside the United States and involving people who have been linked to al-Qaeda or other recognized terrorist organizations by another source. Once that information came through, NSA has shared the data with other intelligence and law-enforcement agencies such as the DIA and the FBI -- just like the 9/11 Commission and Congressional reviews of 9/11 scolded the intelligence services for not doing prior to the devastating attacks. Not one of the people who have been briefed on this program for the last four years has reported or suggested even once that the program deviated from those very limited parameters, and even the Times reported that the NSA sought warrants on anything else.

Conyers and his fringies want to change the terms of the debate on the NSA program by misrepresenting it. Having failed to convince Americans that Bush should get impeached for using the NSA to keep track of international communications involving known or suspected Islamofascist terrorists, he wants to make everyone believe that the overworked NSA really used its limited resources to spy on Congress for George Bush. That's the purpose of these grandstanding letters to the White House and the press references to "domestic" spying, when the warrantless intercepts involved only international communications. It's a dodge, a flim-flam, an outright lie and a vicious smear -- but coming from Conyers, whose long list of paranoid conspiracy allegations almost outstrips his re-election record, it won't surprise anyone.

This kind of tail-chasing is what the New York Times has done for the security of the nation during a time of war. They may not have directly given aid and comfort to our enemies, but they have played enabler to the paranoid screwballs at the fringes of our politics. Perhaps that makes them feel proud, but it seems an awfully strange mission statement to me. (CNN link from Just One Minute)

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 6, 2006 6:33 AM

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