FISA: Wiretapping Without A Warrant,
It Could Be You Next
By Christy Hardin Smith, Firedoglake
Posted on January 27, 2008, Printed on January 29, 2008
So much for that “innocent Americans aren’t being wiretapped” talking point. A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist was not only wiretapped while doing his job in following-up on some sources, but it resulted in the FBI coming to his house to ask questions about his daughter — who was away at college at the time and not a party to any calls being made to or from the family home.
Think it couldn’t happen to you? Read on:
U.S. intelligence tapped the telephone calls of Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower, starting in 2002….
As far as I can tell, only Pam Hess of the Associated Press picked up on Wright’s confrontation with spy chief Michael McConnell over the phone taps, and no major paper ran it. The version of her story that The Washington Post printed recounted McConnell’s telling Wright that water boarding would be “torture” if it were done to him, but dropped the five paragraphs Hess wrote on the eavesdropping. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal skipped Wright’s wiretap account altogether.
But The New Yorker’s Web site did feature an audio interview with Wright in which he described the visit of FBI agents to his Texas home in 2002 to quiz him about the telephone calls intercepted by U.S. intelligence.
The encounter came, mind you, amid the constant assurances from the Bush administration that the U.S. has not, and is not, “spying on Americans” or running a “warrantless domestic spying program.”
“Totally untrue!” McConnell told Wright, insisting that the conversations of American citizens with no connections to terrorists would be immediately discarded. U.S. intelligence is after al Qaeda, McConnell and others have repeatedly pledged, not innocent Americans.
“I’m telling you,” the former Air Force general said, “if you’re in the United States you have to have a warrant. Authorized by the court. Period!”
But Wright then told McConnell he had a more-than-professional interest in electronic surveillance.
“Let me make a disclosure,” he told the spy boss. “I have been monitored.”…
One of his intelligence sources had revealed to him that he had “read a summary of a telephone conversation that I had from my home with a source in Egypt.”
McConnell said the eavesdropping must have been triggered by getting a call “from some telephone number that’s associated with some known outfit.”
The journalist, however, had originated the call.
What happened next bears repeating, not just because it has gone largely unreported, but because it’s the kind of encounter many more Americans can expect if they end up as a target of our distressingly sloppy — some would say incompetent — counterterrorism agencies, if Congress extends a law (PL 110-55) enacted last August, that expanded the government’s electronic surveillance authority.
The law, which expires on Feb. 4, in effect turned U.S.-based Internet servers into a mail drop for U.S. intelligence.
In 2002 Wright was visited by two FBI agents after placing calls in the course of researching The Looming Tower, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the rise of al Qaeda and U.S. responses to it, as well as an article on al Qaeda’s number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“They were members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force,” he recounted. “They wanted to know about phone calls made to a solicitor in England” who was upset that I was talking to some of her clients, who were jihadis, former members of Zawahiri’s terror organization in Egypt, and they wanted to know what we were talking about.”
What startled him, however, was that the visiting gumshoes thought that his daughter, Caroline, had made the calls.
“Our understanding is that these calls were placed by Caroline Wright,” they said.
But Wright’s daughter was off at college at the time. He now worries that “she’s now on the link chart as an al Qaeda connection.”…
The Congressional Quarterly report from which this was taken is a must read for anyone concerned with the incursions on the rule of law, and in having more effective, carefully targets surveillance and intelligence — not illegal band-aids that mask the fact that without on-the-ground live intelligence work. All the sifting of phone calls and e-mails in the world only provides an illusion of security. And that sort of shoddy work results in a lot of calls to Pizza Hut…but is that the best use of our nation’s national security apparatus?
We had a teenage German foreign exchange student live with us a few years ago. I have to wonder how many of our calls were tapped because she wanted to talk with her family back home on occasion? And are they still? Where there is no oversight, no limitation, no real concern for civil liberties in how this is done — and no real way to assure that such care is being taken, even when good people behind the scenes try to be careful in what they do, all it takes is a few bad actors to rig the system — how can any of us ever know whether we have been a target, or whether we still are years after the fact?
Christy Hardin Smith is a former attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review.