Congress and Spying: Fool You Twice, Shame on You

The White House rolled out a charm offensive yesterday designed to convince the American people that the executive branch can be trusted not to abuse the new surveillance powers granted to it last week by a pliant Congress. "Senior administration officials," wrote Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times, "cited a combination of legal barriers and resource restrictions that they said would keep the government from sifting through e-mails and phone calls of Americans without obtaining court warrants first."

Here is what those officials said: "We're really talking about targeting people, directed targeting at people overseas.... If the target is overseas, you don't need a warrant. If the target is in the United States, you do." Here is what they didn't say, but may as well have: "We completely violated the trust of the American people, with the permission of their legislators, with the original Patriot Act and with our other warrantless surveillance and information-gathering procedures. But we feel as though we can be trusted this time despite the fact that judicial review is limited and we aren't required even to disclose to Congress many of the details of our work."

Here's how Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times framed it: "The new measure, signed into law by the president on Sunday, allows intelligence officials to eavesdrop without a warrant on international phone calls or e-mail messages to or from an American inside the United States, but only if they conclude that the "target" is outside this country. The legislation gives broad discretion to the attorney general and the director of national intelligence, rather than a judge, in deciding how those complicated surveillance decisions are made."

And here is how The Post's venerable Walter Pincus put it: "The Bush administration plans to leave oversight of its expanded foreign eavesdropping program to the same government officials who supervise the surveillance activities and to the intelligence personnel who carry them out, senior government officials said yesterday."

I wish that someone on Capitol Hill would explain why the White House deserves such latitude and lack of oversight given its horrendous track record in this area. I wish that someone would explain why this latest generation of warrantless surveillance power is less likely to be abused -- intentionally or not -- than was its predecessor program. And mostly, I wish that someone could persuade me that executive branch officials, including serial deceiver and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, deserve to be trusted when they come back to Congress a few months from now and "update" the legislators on their work.

This White House has repeatedly failed or refused to play it straight with the Congress. And members of Congress have repeatedly discovered that the truth is not what administration officials have said it was. So why did Congress roll over like a poodle and cede its oversight powers last week?

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. How many times is Congress going to be fooled before it acts upon its shame?

By Andrew Cohen |  August 7, 2007; 8:54 AM ET
Previous: The More Things Change... | Next: Another One Bites the Dust


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Cohen: "So what does Congress do? It rolls over like a poodle and cedes its oversight powers."

"Rolls over"??? No way! Congressional Democrats send out strongly worded letters all the time! One after another!

And I don't mean just sort of moderately firm kinds of letters, but really, really, *forceful* sorts of letters, sometimes even kinda mean-sounding ones. I don't think you should underestimate the oversight effectiveness of someone at the WH receiving a very, very pointed letter expressing "deep regret", "sincere disappointment" and suchlike. It probably really hurts their feelings!

Posted by: hiphoplawyer | August 7, 2007 09:59 AM

"So why did Congress roll over like a poodle and cede its oversight powers last week?"

So they could go on vacation.

Posted by: Beltwaynicole | August 7, 2007 10:27 AM

Andrew, your article should have been more scathing, for both parties to this despicable arrangement. I will not vote for my Senators or Representative in the next primary.. In the midst of battle the Democrats who voted for this bill committed political suicide.

Posted by: ghostcommander | August 7, 2007 11:37 AM

Times must be bad when I'm driven to commit poetry.

For all little Bushies everywhere, let's sing:

You better watch out
You better not cry

Better not pout

I'm telling you why

Hillary is coming to town

She's making a list

And checking it twice;

Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice

Hillary is coming to town

She sees you when you're sleeping

She knows when you're awake

She knows if you've been bad or good

So be good for goodness sake!

O! You better watch out!

You better not cry

Better not pout

I'm telling you why

Hillary is coming to town

Hillary is coming to town

Posted by: wrb | August 7, 2007 12:12 PM

Isn't it curious that politicians who question government surveillance are dismissed as kooks or radicals or at least mavericks by the MSM and most of the chattering class? Consider Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and Russ Feingold. The wise guys on the Sunday morning talk shows treat their candidacies as risible, while the big boys (and girl) are largely silent on the issue of civil liberties. They're all afraid of being labeled weak on national security, willing to put the nation (i.e., you and me) at risk of being vaporized by a terrorist. They may do a little hand-wringing over privacy concerns and fears of Big Brother government, but it all lip service. It's a bit ironic that the founding fathers were so concerned about a too-strong executive becoming another king that they vested all legislative power in the Congress and judicial power in the Supreme Court and such inferior courts as Congress might create, but we've ended up with just what the founders feared, a too-strong executive calling all the shots. How ironic too that it's the Republicans, who used to be the advocates of small government, who are telling us that we can trust the federal government not to overreach. And, of course, it is beyond ironic that we look for our protection to that sycophantic, shameless, incompetent lickspittle Fredo Gonzales. Worse yet, most of know that there is little hope from those feckless Democrats in Congress or running for president. Mighty sad.

Posted by: P. Bosley Slogthrop | August 7, 2007 12:26 PM

I know, what's the deal, they blatantly lie to begin with, violate every past precedent, and then when can't avoid criticism, they express such pride for coming up with a legal program; like Gonzalez saying HE is the one needed to reform the DOJ after being caught in the act.

When peons like us say such things, often the response seems a patronizing silence, but Al Gore's new book "The Assault on Reason" documents (a few partisan questionable facts, and the substance could have been organized better, but most of it is documented and are necessary, fundamental points (I'd say about 75% of his points), and by one who had long experience in congress, whose father came from a different tradition of politics, and who had some journalism experience; he asks some of the important questions, which otherwise don't seem to be said, and when common people seem to say the same thing, is greeted with silence,by media people, by the Democrats in Congress in speech and actions (and he spends some time giving an explanantion why), and without question to me by the frontrunner candidates themselves, who would have one think, by the view of reality they give and their silence, as if points such as those he makes which I am sure are some many of us have also wondered, are just so much uninformed irrelevance, when the evidence for them is frequently before us (then maybe when the desired position is secured, they may or may not be admitted).

One thing I personally have concluded is that when public statements aren't even in the same ballpark as known events, or prattle on unconcerned on their own script without even mentioning significant events, just about ALWAYS there are dishonest motives and lies hidden, which may or may not be forced to come to light later, usually forced by some event, and nowadays have numereous ways they can be disguised even then.

Anyone read it yet?

Posted by: Rob S | August 7, 2007 12:36 PM

wrb, no Bushie I (to put it mildly),but God, I too would loathe a coming of Hillary: that smarmy provincialism, the priority on "respectable" affiliation with and phony pretexts for the staus quo (the phony poses she's already putting on in the campaign, what situations she percieves as opportunities for gain etc.) etc. etc.

She may appear harmless and all, but,am sorry, I find practically nauseating .

Posted by: Hugh | August 7, 2007 12:51 PM

It needn't be said, but no, it isn't an involved woman thing.

Posted by: | August 7, 2007 12:52 PM

It's funny I wrote my post, P. Bosley's hadn't shown up yet, and he's saying something in the same area.

Posted by: Rob | August 7, 2007 12:57 PM


Hillary is my least favorite of the Dem candidates. I chose her for the song because she's the one that most seems to give pause to those doing this stuff, when they imagine her as the unitary executive at the top of the national security state.
"She sees you when you're sleeping" was meant to creep people out.

Posted by: wrb | August 7, 2007 12:59 PM

And you know what, the candidates' fear of how they appear and are labelled, COMPLETELY SINKS them for me. Yes I know they need to win first, but not that way; when someone puts on a mask, what if they never take it off, or choose to do it at will. However open to human difference, those are qualities I would NEVER want in a candidate for the most powerful office in the world.

Posted by: DT | August 7, 2007 01:04 PM

Oh it worked wrb, don't get me wrong, very funny!

Posted by: Hugh | August 7, 2007 01:10 PM

I am sure Hillary can be a nice person, or was at one time (but hell, our current near-degenerate George can be plenty gracious in certain contexts also), but the things she feels the need to put on, and the serious blind spots are so indicative of unappealing aspects of her generation.

Posted by: | August 7, 2007 02:13 PM

We put ms and sl in jail for perjury, yet our government officials can violate the exact letter of the law and no one comes to trial? Or was it that they know they don't have a job at the justice department if they did their job and issued warrants for law breakers no matter what the law breakers intentions were (like saving our world lol) Our country needs the Constitution revived and put weed killer out on the branch of government which has become a parasitic sucker of human life (this would be a metaphor, not an actuality)

Posted by: hopeless | August 7, 2007 02:31 PM

Does anyone think the next President, Democrat or Republican
will willingly give up this power?

I know that the authority for this legislation expires in six
months but again, does anyone think that the authority
won't be renewed?

Maybe I'm just a cynic but I don't see much difference
between these two groups of power grabbers.

Posted by: | August 7, 2007 06:17 PM

Giving more power to George Bush and Alberto Gonzales is the most asinine thing I've ever heard. Have the Democrats lost their minds? Or is Bush already blackmailing them with dirt he discovered through his illegal wiretapping? This whole thing stinks to high heaven.

Posted by: Gardenia | August 7, 2007 09:51 PM

Mr. Cohen, and the many intelligent commenters I see here, (which does not include "Chiaramente" and his alter egos!) I enjoy reading your take on what seems to be a slow descent into authoritarianism. "Enjoy" is not the right word, because I can't take pleasure in seeing the anguish of people who think American democracy is falling apart before our eyes.

It seems all we can do is whinge together, because when we vote and write letters to the powerful, they ignore us. It's like the title of the Harlan Ellison science fiction story, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."

I keep hoping we're being tinfoil-hat paranoiacs about the fascism, and the impending economic collapse. Perhaps everything will turn out all right. My reading of history convinces me that economic excess like the U.S. is undergoing, and concentration of power in the hands of an abusive, incompetent government -- it always ends badly.

Maybe I worry too much. I feel personally safe, because I've removed my money and my body from the American arena. I am glad to see Cohen, and those of you who pay attention to him (plus other similar bloggers I read) have figured it out. I just hope we're all totally fugging wrong about it.

In the meantime, keep up the intelligent writing. You people give me hope. Not that you can do anything about the upcoming train wreck, but that at least there are other people who see it coming.

Then again, the people at Jonestown, the people in the Heaven's Gate cult, they thought they saw it coming too. I never thought I'd wish my perception of reality was deluded like them...

Posted by: Bukko in Australia | August 8, 2007 12:18 AM

Several administrations have abused our privacy and they have done it illegally. But Congress (that is to say we the people) continue to allow it.

History will look at us with amazement that we were so weak and spineless as to let go of our civil liberties with hardly a whimper. We value liberty so little that we don't deserve it and we almost certainly will loose it.

Posted by: Calvin Clowes | August 8, 2007 09:59 AM

If you feel like someone is are right! If you feel like you have been raped of rights, are right! If you feel like someone has cut open your bank account and stolen your are right!
Golly I pass this year into oblivion as a citizen? (your are right!)

Posted by: olerb | August 8, 2007 12:15 PM

Bukko, it's not paranoid, because it is based on things unquestionably that happen. If things turn out alright without systemic change in the areas that count, it will be because of a snowjob. How would Gore, with about as much insider experience as one could get, say about 70 % of the exact same points which I don't see much mentioned, had myself privately thought, and had no idea he had written this (don't share as much the parts where he doesn't want to unpolitically point the finger, or too much vested in certain PC afiliations, but a big majority is pretty exactly stated).

Although I thought he was throwing out loads of BS in 2000, all of a sudden I'm seeing eye to eye with a huge part of what he says, and in a book dedicated to his father, I have no doubt that it is (whatever, incidental, minor deviations) what he really does think and has concluded after long experience, not just some rhetorical prefabricated narrative/"argument" as so many books these days are. It really shows up so much of the attitudes and statements that the current candidates are making, frankly to me showing them for what they are.

Lucky that you are removed from the central arena; many here find ways to be escapist, avert the glance, or affiliate with the changing norm, whatever it happens to be at a given moment.

Anon @Aug 7,6:17: What you say may well have a lot of truth, and may explain a lot of recent absurdist Democrat actions (serious events happen, and no appropriate, or even conscious, living response occurs) Too many Democrats now seem all about if they think there is a lot of popular for something, whatever it is, they pander to it, shifting their position from what it was, rather than having clear, plausible, consistent principles.

Posted by: Rb | August 8, 2007 12:39 PM

All the three guys Slog mentioned are the ones who stand out for me currently . Weird when to be reasonable and empirical/factual
make one some radical, an automatic adversary (the Bush admin's "integrity" of not sitting on the fence, ha ha), some fringe maverick. I know a big part exactly why, but it isn't accepted or politic to say it in today's America.

Posted by: Dean | August 8, 2007 12:47 PM



Posted by: RICHARD SHADE | August 9, 2007 06:09 AM

I remember someting a little analogous to what Dc said, and in line with Anon 6:17: don't press too hard on the Republicans, because Democrats think they might like the benefits of the changes the Republicans got away with (again this generation got their advances from being pandered to after cheating and taking/rebelling, of which many are privately well aware even if they don't admit it), or that they don't want retaliation if they press the Republicans, when they may want their pet bill passed.

Evidently, not motivated by principle, but POSITION and a.. kissing, scratch my back/quid pro quo. But don't say this is the way it always was! Whenever someone says that, it frequently turns out to be outright false, and/or a justification to break rules to avoid even the momentary inconvenience of doubt (how criminals are first to sympathize how bad things are, so that licenses them to do anything or worse, because it isn't so different from what they are satisfied with as a norm-e.g. "it's always been like this").

It's a pretty sad state of government and"representation" by Congress (of course social and cultural life and habits in America too).

Posted by: Van | August 9, 2007 12:32 PM

At least a large part of the Bs Gore was throwing out in 2000 was due to GW's presenting himeslf as some centrist, thereby adopting some of the positions Gore had planne to take.

Posted by: g | August 9, 2007 02:14 PM

The background on all of this is the creation of the FISA court. The court was established in response to the multiple unconstitutional and illegal acts of the Nixon administration, the FBI, and the security agencies. The FISA court legalized actions that were illegal before and hid the results from view by making the workings of the FISA court classified. We are watching a repeat of the pattern and the continuing erosion of civil liberties and constitutional rights. If the opposition, who pretend to stand foursquare for civil liberties and constitutional rights, in this country were serious, they would be calling for the abolition of the FISA court itself. Instead they scream about the latest obscenity but buy in on the original transgressions as necessary to protect us from the results of our imperial overreach by the National Security State.

All to protect the power of both the Democratic and Republican mainstream politicos.

Posted by: Ted Steege | August 9, 2007 06:22 PM

Once again, the Useless Party refuses to stand up to the Evil Party, leaving Americans with no alternative and a sham democracy.

Posted by: AxelDC | August 11, 2007 08:59 AM

If true Ted, those politicos don't deserve that power, do they?

Posted by: Zeke | August 16, 2007 01:53 PM

Goethe - "the best that mankind ever knew" was the realization that "he only earns his freedom and existence who daily conquers them anew."

Posted by: Nan | August 18, 2007 11:14 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company