Information, please

September 18, 2006

Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats probably should have known better when they asked the National Security Agency recently what they could say publicly about the warrantless wiretapping of Americans without spilling state secrets.

What the senators got back were political talking points that included:

The program ... has detected terrorist plots that could have resulted in injury to Americans both at home and abroad. And this: [The program] is being run in a highly disciplined way that takes great pains to protect U.S. privacy rights. And most ironically, this: There is strict oversight in place, both at NSA and ... now including the full congressional intelligence committees - that means the very senators trying in vain to get useful details about the controversial program.

Maybe some prankster at spy HQ near Fort Meade was having a few yuks at the lawmakers' expense. But there's nothing funny about the Bush administration's continued stonewall on reforming or abandoning a program found unconstitutional by a federal judge.

Mr. Bush made a grand gesture of bowing to congressional authority in seeking formal authorization of the wiretapping program along with a legal framework for the interrogation and trial of terror suspects. The torture measure has attracted the most attention because of open rebellion by several Republican senators, but setting rules for circumstances in which the government can listen in on phone calls of potentially innocent Americans has serious implications as well.

What's more, the administration refuses to provide senators with information such as how many terrorists have been identified, arrested, convicted, deported or killed as a direct result of information received from wireless wiretaps.

Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, one of the aggrieved Intelligence Committee Democrats, says she refuses to simply "rubber-stamp" a policy without more information about it. She is supporting an alternative proposal that reaffirms the president's obligation to obtain warrants from a secret court dealing with foreign surveillance before installing domestic wiretaps but addresses the need for speed in instances of hot pursuit.

That practical compromise would allow NSA to do its work while protecting the liberty and privacy of Americans. Republicans, who often claim to be the greatest champions of civil liberties, should support it as well.

Certainly the stakes are too high to simply accept on faith the claims of an agency that responds to requests for information from a congressional oversight committee with political spin.

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