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Monday, October 8, 2007
Kessler Misleads on FISA, Parrots Administration Line
Topic: Newsmax

As he did before the 2006 midterm elections, NewsMax's Ronald Kessler is resorting to scare tactics about terrorism. The previous cause was the re-election of Republicans; this time, Kessler is trying to remove as many restrictions as possible on government wiretapping.

Kessler began his Oct. 5 column by claiming, "In their efforts to demonize the American intelligence community, Democrats and the media are playing with our safety" by "minimizing and distorting warnings from Mike McConnell, director of National Intelligence, about how defenseless America would become if warrants were required to intercept terrorists’ calls and e-mails even when those communications are in foreign countries." He attacked a court ruling that had mandated warrants be obtained for such wiretapping because most of the switches that govern worldwide telecommunications are on U.S. soil. Kessler ramped up the scare factor:

Because of the ruling, tens of thousands of calls and e-mails were not being examined. Any one of them could have contained clues to an al-Qaida plot to detonate nuclear devices in Manhattan and Washington. As FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has told me, these are al-Qaida's twin goals.

He adds:

Obtaining a FISA court order requires an average of 200 man hours of preparation. Often, people who speak Arabic, Farsi, or Urdu have to be pulled off tracking leads to possible plots to help prepare the applications. Moreover, by the time an order is obtained for a new targeted phone number, the call is finished.

Kessler offers no evidence to support this assertion, though it appears to be an assertion made by McConnell himself. Wired's Threat Level blog crunched the numbers:

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.

Let's assume dedicated government employees work 40 hours a week with two weeks off a year. That means there were 218 government employees with top secret clearances sitting in rooms, writing only FISA warrants. 

Kessler also doesn't mention that authorities can obtain a FISA warrant up to 72 hours after the eavesdropping begins, which would seem to negate the issue of not being able to obtain warrants until after "the call is finished."

Kessler continues by reciting McConnell's assertion that in one case, "the delay in obtaining a warrant was nine and a half hours."  But then, Kessler complains, "the press pounced" by pointing out that, as the Washington Post reported, the delay was not caused by the need to comply with FISA, as McConnell claimed, but "primarily by legal wrangling between the Justice Department and intelligence officials over whether authorities had probable cause to begin the surveillance." Kessler sought to play that down:

The problem was not “legal wrangling,” the term the Post chose to apply to legal deliberations. The problem was that FISA had not kept up with technological changes and needed to be revised to make it conform to its original intent.

Kessler is merely parroting the line from McConnell's office, as demonstrated by communications between TPMmuckraker and McConnell's spokesman, Ross Feinstein. Shouldn't someone like Kessler, who seems to aspire to be a reporter of some kind, aim for more than merely repeating Bush administration talking points?

Kessler concludes with a bit more scaremongering:

If al-Qaida succeeds at its goals, it could literally wipe out millions of Americans and institute a nuclear winter. Yet between the Democrats’ efforts to handcuff those who are trying to protect us and the mainstream media’s efforts to malign those officials and distort the truth about the issues we face, we as Americans are at the mercy of people bent on committing suicide.

 Osama bin Laden, known to follow the media closely, has to be laughing.

Again: Doesn't Kessler aspire to being more than a Bush administration shill? Unfortunately, we know the answer to that is an emphatic no.

Posted by Terry K. at 12:35 AM EDT

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