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Bush to Congress: streamline star-chamber spy court

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President Bush also sought to emphasise that the proposed FISA amendments were all about spying on nasty foreigners, not Americans. He said American spies shouldn't have to "obtain court orders to effectively collect foreign intelligence about foreign targets located in foreign locations".

Of course, they don't actually need court orders to do that. If the US intelligence community was a bit more willing to spend time operating in foreign locations, it could find out stuff without any court order at all. But that's dangerous and sweaty. It involves possibly doing without a flush lavatory and air conditioning* for lengthy periods of time, eating suspicious foreign food, and probably spending years trying to bribe weird, smelly locals to spy on each other. Even, worst case, doing without a diplomatic passport and thus perhaps getting captured by unsympathetic foreign spooks or police, being denied by Washington and jailed or tortured to death.

It's a hell of a lot more pleasant to just intercept the foreigners' comms whenever they pass through the USA, which they often do - especially if the foreigners ever speak to or communicate with an American. Lots of times an interesting email, an IM, or even a phone call between two foreign locations will travel via America, where American spooks could so easily notice it as a result of automated scanning - if it weren't for that pesky FISA. Or suspicious-seeming foreigners will communicate with people inside America, giving away their phone numbers and email addresses and all the rest of it, which could then be shunted in bulk into a nice big database ripe for mining - if the damn FISA wasn't there.

"Our intelligence community warns that under the current statute, we are missing a significant amount of foreign intelligence that we should be collecting to protect our country," said President Bush.

This presumably means that it's illegal to collect that information under FISA; or that even the flexible secret judges won't issue a warrant to collect it. There is also, apparently, an issue with the telecoms providers, who aren't happy about laying themselves open to lawsuits from disgruntled wiretappees.

The Associated Press quotes Caroline Fredrickson of the American Civil Liberties Union as saying: "The administration claims the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must be 'modernised'. Actually, it needs to be followed."

The top Republican in Congress said that was a lot of crap, and FISA was "a terrorist loophole".

John Boehner of Ohio thundered to the AP: "Rather than learning the lessons of September 11 - that we need to break down the bureaucratic impediments to intelligence collection and analysis - Democrats have stonewalled Republican attempts to modernise FISA."

It seems Americans are being offered a choice between being secretly spied on by possibly inefficient spooks bound by star-chamber red tape, or being spied on much more efficiently. Those of us who live outside America in countries where it isn't dangerous or difficult to be an American spy can presumably rest assured that we're being monitored all the time anyway.

There's a full transcript of the President's speech here. ®

*To be fair, so does working at NSA HQ, sometimes.

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