ACLU speaks against secret wiretapping by Bush administration

08/13/07 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday | Listen to this entire show:

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed in the aftermath of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to prevent the executive branch from spying on Americans without warrant.

In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11th, 2001, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to begin a secret program of warrantless wiretapping within the United States.

A judicial ruling found it to be illegal and in January, just days before an appeals court was to hear the government’s appeal, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced that the NSA program would be discontinued.

But just over a week ago, before Congress left on its August recess, it passed what is called the Protect America Act of 2007, expanding the Bush administrations’ authority to conduct warrantless wiretapping of American’s international phone calls and emails.

Mike Pheneger is chair of the Greater Tampa Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and is on the ACLU’s National Board and the National Executive Committee. He told WMNF why his group opposes the new law.

Under FISA, the government had to go to a court for surveillance authorization. But rather than punish the Bush administration for breaking the law, the Democratic-led Congress changed the law. Now the only authorization needed will be from Attorney General Gonzales and Mike McConnell, director of National Intelligence, despite the political and legal hot water Gonzales is currently in.

Patricia J. Williams, in her “Diary of a Mad Law Professor” column in the current issue of The Nation magazine, calls it “The Protect Alberto Gonzales Act of 2007.”

The ACLU’s Mike Pheneger said the ACLU has filed papers with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court requesting that it disclose recent secret legal opinions regarding the scope of the government’s authority to wiretap Americans.

The law will expire in six months unless it is renewed.

Pheneger said there was a legitimate concern with foreign communications over fiber optic cables that happen to be routed through the United States, but that a fix could have occurred that was not as drastic and could have protected American citizens from being surveilled without a warrant.

Pheneger is a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer with the rank of colonel. He has 30 years of experience and used to be the director of intelligence for U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base.

There is urgency for Congress to fix this law as soon as they return from recess, according to Pheneger.

WMNF attempted to speak with Sen. Bill Nelson, one of the Democrats who voted for the Act, and Sen. Mel Martinez, but multiple phone calls were not returned. Representative Kathy Castor’s office declined an opportunity to comment. Castor voted against the legislation.

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