The New York Times has an interesting story on some privacy and civil liberty questions surrounding the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program that the Obama administration will face early on.
The Justice Department will be asked to respond to motions in legal challenges to the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program, and must decide whether to continue the tactics used by the Bush administration — which has used broad claims of national security and “state secrets” to try to derail the challenges — or instead agree to disclose publicly more information about how the program was run.
When he takes office, Mr. Obama will inherit greater power in domestic spying power than any other new president in more than 30 years, but he may find himself in an awkward position as he weighs how to wield it. As a presidential candidate, he condemned the N.S.A. operation as illegal, and threatened to filibuster a bill that would grant the government expanded surveillance powers and provide immunity to phone companies that helped in the Bush administration’s program of wiretapping without warrants. But Mr. Obama switched positions and ultimately supported the measure in the Senate, angering liberal supporters who accused him of bowing to pressure from the right.
Advisers to Mr. Obama appear divided over whether he should push forcefully to investigate the operations of the wiretapping program, which was run in secret from September 2001 until December 2005.
There have been a number of questions raised about the legality of the program since the New York Times revealed it in December 2005. Many were angry when the House and Senate, including Senator Obama, approved the FISA Amendments Act in July, because the Act unreasonably and unnecessarily authorizes broad surveillance of Americans’ international communications without meaningful Fourth Amendment protections. (Statements from: the American Civil Liberties Union, Center for National Security Studies (pdf), and Electronic Frontier Foundation. A letter (pdf) to Congress from Privacy Lives and other groups urging against passage of the FISA Amendments Act.)
The FISA Amendments Act, which President Bush quickly signed into law, greatly expands the secret surveillance powers of the federal government. The Act also confers retroactive immunity upon the telecommunications companies that participated in the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program.
The latest scandal concerning the program is that the Inspector General for the National Security Agency has begun an investigation into allegations by whistleblowers of abuse in the warrantless wiretapping program. Two former intercept operators said that the agency listened in on intimate calls from American citizens stationed abroad (soldiers, journalists, relief workers) even though the individuals were not suspected of any crimes.