Technology with attitude

Senate doubles over laughing at wiretap proposal

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Well, okay, they didn’t. But I wish they would.

At least they were skeptical.

Citing FBI abuses and the attorney general’s troubles, senators peppered top Justice and intelligence officials Tuesday with skeptical questions about their proposal to revise the rules for spying on Americans.

Senate Intelligence Committee members said the Bush administration must provide more information about its earlier domestic spying before it can hope to gain additional powers for the future.

Man, I love divided government. Rubber stamps suck.

The debate revolved largely around NSA wiretapping authority. By way of confirming everyone’s worst fear, the administration witnesses admitted that Bush would submit to warrants only as long as it was convenient:

“There is nothing in this bill that confines the president to work within” the surveillance act in the future, said Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif. The same issue was raised by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

McConnell said the administration wants to work under the surveillance law now, but acknowledged “that does not mean the president would not use … (constitutional powers) in a crisis.”

I’d be interested to see how the administration defines the word “crisis.” And why they think the court would be a problem in such a situation, given that in 2006 it rejected exactly one eavesdropping request — while approving 2,176.

Congress should not let politics and suspicion get in the way of adapting legitimate surveillance methods to modern technology. But neither should they simply trust the administration, because it has proven itself manifestly unworthy of such trust. The administration bill should be a starting point, but Congress should decide for itself how to adapt to modern times — and what restrictions to place on so doing.

Meanwhile, a court report gives a sense of the scope of non-NSA wiretapping. It’s at record levels, but still pretty small: 1,839 taps were authorized in 2006. And that’s entirely due to a big jump in state-authorized taps. Federal wiretaps actually have been falling since 2004, and there were fewer in 2006 than there were in 1996.

Two caveats:

1. A given wiretap can cover more than one person, and of course a wiretap subject typically talks to multiple people. The average number of people monitored under a wiretap order was 122. So a grand total of 225,000 or so Americans had police listening in on all or some of their conversations. That’s a lot, but it’s still just 0.07 percent of the population. NSA aside, 99.93 percent of us were not monitored.

2. The Justice Department says the drop in federal wiretaps is entirely due to several large, ongoing investigations that could not be reported in the 2006 figures. Had those taps been counted, Justice claims, there would have been no decrease in wiretaps.

Also of interest: Not a single wiretap request was denied — and not one had anything to do with terrorism.

Fun party trivia: On average it costs $52,551 to install a wiretap.