FISA

FISA….Tim Lee is reading about J. Edgar Hoover’s steady expansion of domestic surveillance during his long tenure as FBI director:

The most remarkable thing about it is how familiar it all seems. As [Athan] Theoharis tells the story, the FBI has, from its inception, pushed for ever broader authority to spy on Americans. During the first half of the 20th century, it pushed relentlessly for broader statutory authority. When Congress would not give it the authority it wanted, it sought authorization from senior executive branch officials for authorization to break the law. If authorization wasn’t fortcoming, the bureau would often do what it wanted anyway and not tell its nominal superiors of its activities.

Tim seems persuaded that Hoover-ish sorts of surveillance aimed at political enemies is probably going on today, but I think Matt Yglesias is closer to the target with this:

These practices, of course, were per se abusive in many ways, and led to further abuses, and then under Richard Nixon led to the revelation of massive abuses and the creations of the safeguards we’re now busy unwinding.

I suppose at this point I’ve become fatalistic about FISA and am mostly just waiting for this whole cycle to repeat itself.

There is, of course, no way to know with certainty what NSA is doing right now, but even if their programs really are tightly focused on international terrorist activity today (and I think they are), the odds are about zero that a gigantic, secret, wholesale surveillance program with poor oversight will remain tightly focused in the future. Even if George Bush’s motives are entirely pure, abuse is inevitable under the kind of rules set forth in the FISA legislation currently waiting for Senate approval. A decade or two from now, a 21st century version of the Church Commission will write this story for the second time and our children will wonder how we let it happen. I sort of doubt that we’ll have a very good answer.