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Morning Bell: The Left’s Curious Privacy Priorities

The far left is apoplectic over Sen. Barack Obama’s announced support for the compromise bill passed by the House last week making essential updates to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The ACLU called the bill the “death march for the Fourth Amendment” and is launching a campaign against Obama to get him to filibuster the bill in the Senate. Obama’s embrace of common-sense intelligence gathering reform is particularly painful for the left because it undermines all of the hyperbolic claims of lost civil liberties that supposedly occurred during the Bush Administration.

Passed in 1978, FISA required U.S. intelligence agencies to obtain warrants to monitor all communications made through wire and cable, but allowed agencies to monitor radio and satellite communications freely. At the time, technology was such that cable and wire calls were all domestic while the satellite and radio communications usually involved a foreign recipient. Since 1978, however, technology has changed. Now,  many international-to-international communications pass through wires and cables in the U.S. (think e-mail).

In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush (in consultation with Congress) instituted a terrorist-surveillance program that did not conform to FISA’s outdated requirements. The details of the program are still classified, but its focus is intercepting international-to-international communications and communications from international targets to people in the United States. Most observers believe Bush’s initial program is substantially similar to the program that the FISA court approved of last year.

The problem:  The legislation that allowed the FISA court to approve Bush’s program was temporary. This summer, liberals in Congress pushed to have that temporary FISA reform lapse, and now the FISA court can issue only individual warrants —  just as it had to under the 1978 law. The FISA court no longer is authorized to approve sophisticated programs such as the one protecting our country right now.

Liberals had every opportunity to know Obama would continue to use the same surveillance tools that Bush has. John Brennan, former National Counterterrorism Center director and current foreign policy adviser to Obama, told National Journal earlier this year that he supported giving immunity to telecommunication companies that complied with Bush’s post-9/11 program. And early last week, Obama told ABC News he didn’t oppose the NSA’s surveillance program.

From the beginning, the left’s rhetoric on this issue was completely overblown. By calling the surveillance program “warrentless wiretapping,” liberals made it seem like the government has routinely violated the Fourth Amendment since 9/11. Nothing could be further from the truth. Monitoring foreign communications no more violates the Fourth Amendment than Customs does when it searches your luggage when you enter the country. To date, privacy absolutists have been unable to point to any actual harm that individual Americans have suffered because of government surveillance. No wonder Obama has announced he will support common-sense FISA reform.

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