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In the course of covering Washington politics for several years we've noticed that it's often the casual throw-away comments made by Establishment players during press conferences and hearings which can lead to a discovery for journalists.

One ominous little comment which we heard back in June, and dutifully reported here, surprised and impressed us considerably, but not half so much as the uncharacteristically lukewarm response to our coverage fromThe Register's normally twitchy, paranoid (and above all, beloved) readers. Perhaps, due to our legendary modesty here at Vulture Central, we didn't make it clear last time around:

If you are a US citizen concerned about the steady erosion of your civil liberties under the pretext of counter-terrorism, then the following story should worry you quite a bit.

The US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), which restricts government surveillance related to terrorist investigations, was massaged considerably during the Millennium rollover to enable quick and dirty wiretaps of US residents who would otherwise have been beyond the FBI's authority, National Commission on Terrorism Chairman Paul Bremmer revealed during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Bremmer would like the slack FISA standards in use during the Millennium period, during which every manner of terrorist attack had been envisaged, to become permanent.

In order to streamline FISA wiretap orders, nitpicking officials in the US Department of Justice's Office of Intelligence Policy Review (OIPR) should be prevented from "interposing themselves" between the FBI and the courts, and from "performing a screening, shortstop role" when the FISA is invoked, Bremmer said.

The Commission's written report, "Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism", states that "during the period leading up to the Millennium, the FISA application process was streamlined. Without lowering the FISA standards, applications were submitted to the FISA Court by DoJ promptly and with enough information to establish probable cause."

But this appears to be a lot of official, soft-pedal rubbish. Commission member Juliette Kayyem replied to Bremmer's recommendation by saying that it would be "a terrible mistake to permit the FBI to wiretap any American who was at one time, no matter how long ago, a member of an organisation that we now have deemed to be 'terrorist.'"

"I think keeping the Millennium standard is exactly what we don't want to do when terrorism is involved," Kayyem continued. "If that became our [permanent] standard, and the next terrorist event happened, [domestic surveillance] would only increase after that."

So while the Commission's report states flatly that FISA standards had not been lowered during the Millennium madness, Kayyem's reference to wiretapping Americans with only vague ties to terrorist organizations strongly suggests that they were lowered considerably to accommodate a twitchy Clinton Administration, which has promoted the most dramatic increase in domestic snooping in US history.

"What happened during the Millennium, although I don't know the specifics of it, meant that everyone could come together and get the surveillance through. But that's not a standard we'd want to stay with," she said.

We find it interesting that a member of a Commission charged with making recommendations to the Senate Intelligence Committee should not have been trusted with the full facts of what legal 'adjustments' were made to FISA standards on the pretext of impending Millennium horrors.

It certainly implies that the government is better off keeping them a secret, and that the average citizen would be appalled if they weren't.

Bremmer, who served US President Ronald Reagan as his Counterterrorism Ambassador-at-Large, defended the FISA alterations, though without revealing the particulars. "The events surrounding the Millennium showed that a lot of concerns....among our intelligence agencies were well justified," he claimed.

"It turned out that there really were plans for some major attacks during the Millennium, and thanks to some excellent liaison work with some countries, and some excellent detective work in this country, we were able to avoid them."

Apparently we ought to be grateful, but we have some trouble taking him at his word, since he offers little more than an assertion that if he could tell us the truth, we would all be inclined to agree with him. ®

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