Surveillance Expansion Started Before Sept. 11
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This week, the House is also expected to debate legislation on electronic surveillance.
NPR's senior news analyst, Daniel Schorr, has been keeping tabs on that.
DANIEL SCHORR: President Bush would have us believe that 9/11 dictated the need for more extensive wiretapping even of Americans. But it appears that the Bush administration was bent on expanding its eavesdropping capability before 9/11.
Joseph Nacchio is the former head of the telephone company Quest Communications. He has disclosed that in February 2001 - that is some seven months before the 9/11 attack - Quest turned down a request from the national security agency to cooperate in monitoring calls. Nacchio says that as a consequence, Quest was denied government contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It should be noted that Nacchio was defending himself against charges of insider trading.
The administration must now believe it was acting illegally in conducting warrantless surveillance because it has demanded legislation immunizing telephone companies from lawsuits for past involvement in wiretapping. The President has expressed concern that obtaining warrants is too time-consuming when the surveillance targets are suspected terrorists. House Democrats have joined the Republicans in an attempt to answer that concern with a bill that would ease the burden of having to acquire individual warrants.
Instead, the NSA would be permitted to obtain multiple umbrella warrants from the FISA intelligence courts. But Mr. Bush continues to insist that the Democrats are trying to take us backward in monitoring suspected terrorists. Trying to balance security against privacy is tricky at best. Still remembered is how Congress took the NSA to task in the mid-70s for keeping a watch list of anti-war Americans to be monitored. Now, the administration is demanding a free hand from Congress to wiretap without any judicial or other oversight.
But House Democrats assert that they have offered a viable compromise, and they are not likely to give the president the freehand he demands. The question then is whether President Bush, convinced that his acting in the interest of national security, chooses to go ahead anyway.
This is Daniel Schorr.
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