The American way of spying gets a makeover

Intel reform bill finally emerges from Congress

A controversial intelligence reform bill inspired by the 9/11 Commission has finally passed through both chambers of Congress and will soon be signed by the President.

The bill, which had previously been stalled by House Republicans, was approved by a wide margin during a brief lame-duck session this week, after language that the nay-sayers believed could allow civilian authorities to hamper military intelligence gathering and dissemination was re-jiggered.

National scapegoat

The main feature is a new national intelligence czar, to whom, it is imagined, the many federal agencies engaged in intel and counterterrorism will report. Previously, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was the de facto Godfather; but he has no budgetary control over other agencies, hence no power to punish, and is more than occupied with the task of administering the CIA, and testifying before myriad Congressional committees.

The new post will have some budgetary authority, but not a lot. Republican skeptics believed that putting too much power in the hands of a civilian could jeopardize military operations, so there was a last-minute scaling-down to get the bill passed. This may result in one of Congress's most plentiful products, a 'worst-of-both-worlds' compromise.

Critics charge that the last thing needed in any reform effort is another layer of Washington bureaucracy, and there's wisdom in that position. Supporters claim that someone has got to be in charge of the 20+ agencies involved in national security, or they'll be doomed to work at cross purposes. The reform bill, as adopted, gives us someone in charge, but doesn't give him all the power he needs to succeed, if, indeed, he can succeed.

Basically, the bill creates an Office of Security Scapegoat, so that the next time the United States suffers a spectacular, mass-casualty attack, Congress will know who to blame. This feature alone accounts for much of its allure among Members. Whenever things go sideways, Congress is always looking for someone to blame. Members find it comforting to know ahead of time who that unfortunate bugger will be.

I spy with my little eye

The bill marks the federal government's final triumph over the Act of Posse Comitatus, a niggling restriction on the use of military assets in domestic law enforcement. Boosters have used such gimmicky euphemisms as "breaking down the walls" and "connecting the dots" to describe the business of wholesale intel sharing among military and law-enforcement bodies, but the wind up is that distinctions between the two are being dissolved on counterterrorist pretexts.

There are new, expanded powers and lower barriers for federal electronic wiretaps; and there is a most regrettable expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), that basically lets the Feds apply it to anyone they wish to investigate without first establishing that they are, in fact, foreign agents.

The bill also throws extra money at futile biometric ID schemes, and makes gestures toward standardized driver's licenses and birth certificates. It lays the early groundwork for the eventual establishment of a national, biometrically-enhanced ID card, without really saying so. People would complain about that, so the idea here is to equip us with them before we know what they really imply.

Window dressing

On the plus side, the bill mandates a certain amount of futile Congressional oversight (as if there weren't enough of that already), and the establishment of a White House privacy and civil liberties liaison to help with policy decisions, in case the President wishes to be so advised. Unfortunately, the White House remains in a position to sideline the privacy and civil liberties office in case it should become troublesome, as it might when, say, a war is proposed on utterly fictional pretenses, or when people with Arabic names might need to be sweated in jails without access to legal counsel.

Not that this would ever occur in such a highly-evolved Democracy as the USA, mind, which is bringing Liberty and the blessings of a bourgeois Protestant God to the far corners of the Earth. But, theoretically, it could happen if, by some odd chance, the Bill of Rights or the Geneva Conventions were ignored, say.

Purely an outside chance, certainly. ®

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