The intelligence reform bill passed by Congress includes little-discussed provisions that would greatly expand the government’s policing power and centralizes the intelligence community’s surveillance powers which civil liberties advocates say increases the likelihood for government abuses. We speak with Robert Dreyfuss of Mother Jones and Timothy Edgar of the ACLU. [includes rush transcript]
In the weeks following President Bush’s reelection, the White House lobbied hard to push through a sweeping bill to reform to the country’s intelligence community. The legislation won congressional approval last week and is expected to be signed by the President within days.
The 9/11 intelligence bill, which creates a national intelligence director that will be in charge of the budgets of the country’s 15 spy agencies, is being touted as the biggest overhaul of the country’s intelligence community in half a century. Key House Republicans held up the legislation until a compromise was reached that ensured the Pentagon retained control of much its own intelligence operations including the National Security Agency which is the country’s largest intelligence unit.
Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, one of only two Senators to vote against the measure, chastised his colleagues for voting before reading the final version of the massive bill and said “no legislation alone can forestall a terrorist attack.”
After the bill was approved, reports emerged that it included a number of little-noticed provisions that would greatly expand the government’s policing power and in effect broaden the USA Patriot Act. The Washington Post reports that the new intelligence bill loosens standards for FBI surveillance warrants and allows the Justice Department to more easily detain people without bail. The bill will allow the FBI to obtain secret surveillance and search warrants of individuals even if the individual has no connection with a foreign government or established terrorist group.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now in our Washington studio by Robert Dreyfuss, investigative reporter and contributing editor of Mother Jones, The Nation, and The American Prospect. He’s the author of a new blog at tompaine.com.
ROBERT DREYFUSS: Good to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Good to have you with us. Can you talk about your concerns about the bill that President Bush is about to sign?
ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, I think first of all, you need to put it in context. After 9/11, and since then, there’s been a stampede toward creating a surveillance society, toward creating a larger and more powerful intelligence community and merging the CIA and the FBI. We saw that in the PATRIOT Act that passed 99-1 in the Senate. We saw it again with this latest intelligence bill, which comes, by the way, after a tremendous expansion of the U.S. intelligence community. The budget — and of course these figures are somewhat in doubt because they’re so secret — but the budget apparently for the intelligence community has gone from something like $26 or $27 billion before 9/11, to about $40 billion today. So, there’s been a gigantic expansion of the intelligence community already.
Now, as sort of part of a political football debate in Congress, the 9/11 commission recommendations have basically, with some changes, been enacted into law, which leads to yet another expansion, not only of the size of the intelligence community, but of the scope of the intelligence community. It creates, just like the PATRIOT Act did, new powers for the federal government, creates a centralization of the intelligence community under what they’re calling a National Intelligence Director. And it was basically rushed through Congress with almost no voice being raised about the kind of concerns that I have about this bill. In fact, all of the opposition to it, at least if you read the newspaper accounts of this, was coming from the Pentagon, which feared that this new Intelligence Director would agglomerate too much power, reducing the Pentagon’s control over its share of the intelligence community activity and budget. Once that was resolved through a compromise, there was nobody, I think, with the exception of Senator Byrd from West Virginia, who even blinked about the dangers in this bill. I’m — I frankly — I’m shocked that no Democrats have gotten up to scream about this. In fact, they all saw it as some sort of a perverse triumph over the White House to have enacted this bill. Meanwhile, I think it’s just yet another part of the pendulum, which is continuing still to swing away from civil liberties, and toward a surveillance state because of the alleged threat of terrorism since 9/11.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Dreyfuss, we’re also joined on the telephone by Timothy Edgar, who is legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. Timothy Edgar, what are the major provisions that you are most concerned about specifically?
TIMOTHY EDGAR: Well, some of them were talked about in that Washington Post story. The expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to include individuals — for now, this is just non-citizens, but we’re worried it could be expanded in the future — who are not acting on behalf of a foreign power or government. That’s the basic limit on foreign intelligence surveillance that’s been in place since the late '70s, that you can only get these secret warrants that operate outside the normal probable cause standards of the criminal world when you can show to a secret court — that's what the secret court does is it looks to see whether someone’s connected to a foreign power or government or organization — and that’s been wiped away. The other is the pre-trial detention. the government, Justice Department has detained numerous terror suspects after 9/11 with little or no evidence that they are involved in terrorism. Now under the bill, by charging someone with a terrorist offense they can get an automatic presumption that there should be no bail. Now, this is a presumption can be rebutted, but it’s going to be up to the defendant to prove essentially that they’re not dangerous, and that they can be let out on bail. So, these are the kind of provisions that we had been urging them to keep out of a bill about restructuring the intelligence community. There were many more even more radical provisions that had to do with penalizing legal immigrants as well as asylees and refugees. Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was adamant about including these provisions. One reason I think — Bob is right that the Democrats supported this bill with the lone exception of Senator Byrd and a couple of members of the House. One reason they did is they were so focused on fighting to keep the even more extreme provisions out that I think that they just felt like they had won a victory by keeping those anti-immigrant provisions out of the bill. Certainly, that was, at least a tactical victory, but you know, we feel, we opposed the bill because we feel that Congress shouldn’t pass a flawed bill simply because it could have been much worse.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you talk about the standardized driver’s license? How that would change?
TIMOTHY EDGAR: Sure. I mean, one problem with the bill is that it creates what amounts to, in effect, a national ID. It does this by taking the existing state driver’s licenses and federalizing them. It basically puts the federal government in charge of the standards for issuing and designing driver’s licenses. This became a huge political football in the debate, because some conservative Republicans wanted to use those federal standards to prohibit those states that don’t link immigration status to driver’s licenses, from issuing driver’s licenses to many immigrants — undocumented as well as some legal immigrants. The larger issue is that we’re really going to create a federalized driver’s license that could be used to, in the future at least, track people. There’s all sorts of new technologies that could be incorporated into the driver’s license to link it to all sorts of public and private-sector databases. And you could also imagine putting an RFID chip in the license that would allow it to be tracked remotely. So, this is something the 9/11 commission had actually recommended be done, that the driver’s license should be something like an internal passport of the sort that we’ve seen in the Soviet Union in the past, and although the Congress wasn’t willing to explicitly go that far, they have laid the groundwork for that kind of checkpoint society in the future.
AMY GOODMAN: Timothy Edgar is the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. Bob Dreyfuss, as you listen to this and you are just talking about the Democrats not opposing this, can you explain the state of the Democratic Party right now? I mean, you have everyone from the nominees — people like Alberto Gonzales wrote some of those memos that laid the groundwork for the torture at Abu Ghraib or the detentions at Guantanamo and the Democrats not challenging them — to this bill, without Robert Byrd saying, “Hey, we just got this a day ago. Why is everyone voting for this so quickly?” You have almost no opposition.
ROBERT DREYFUSS: Yeah. I’m not as charitable as Tim Edgar towards the Democrats. In fact, you can make the case that the Democrats are chiefly to blame for this bill, because they pushed for the creation of this 9/11 commission in the first place. They joined with these wives of the victims of 9/11 to accelerate its work and to demand the conclusions that resulted. The Democrats then pressed for the legislation, and were really the main cheerleaders in Congress for the bill in the first place. And the fact that they managed to head off some of the crazy right-wing proposals that some of the Republicans wanted to include in it doesn’t take away from the fact that the Democrats have been really totally unable since 9/11 to come up with a strategy to neutralize Bush on the so-called war on terrorism. I mean, I could speak at length about why I think the Bush administration is wildly exaggerating both the threat from terrorism, which I think is you know, significant, but not at all requiring a — even the creation of a Homeland Security department. I think that was an extreme overreach in terms of what’s necessary in this country. So, I think the Democrats have completely and utterly failed to grapple with the issue of the war on terrorism, and you have leading Democrats like Senator Schumer and Clinton from New York, Joe Lieberman and others, becoming almost rabid attackers of Bush for being too soft on the war on terrorism. So, perversely, the Democrats have become sort of, you know, table-pounders, demanding that the Bush administration be more extreme than it already is in the war on terrorism. I think that this is a political issue that certainly resonated during the 2004 election when Senator Kerry, kind of flailing around for some way to grapple with this, started demanding that the 9/11 commission recommendations be implemented, and all of the political pressure to pass this bill, you know, came on the White House from the Democrats. Initially, the White House resisted because of military pressure, the idea of centralization of intelligence. I cannot stress enough how important that is, because what you are going to have now with this National Intelligence Director, is a central figure, a highly political position, effectively under the control of the President directly, who is now going to be supervising the entire $40 billion-plus intelligence community for political purposes. One of the good things about intelligence is it’s grounded in reality. That’s why the CIA, for all of its flaws, resisted the war in Iraq. Because they were more aware than the political people that the terrorism links to 9/11 from Iraq were non-existent and even questioned some of the WMD charges that the Pentagon was pushing. So, when you have an intelligence system grounded in reality that’s now being subverted by political purposes, I think really, all bets are off.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Dreyfuss, two quick questions. Ralph Nader is waiting right there in the wings. One has to do with not the Democratic Party, but the media’s coverage of this, before and after the intelligence bill was passed. Then I want to go to a completely different topic, which is, you’re one of those who is blogging most extensively about Iran and I wanted to get your comment on that. But first, the media coverage.
ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, I mean, I think the media, unfortunately, followed the Democrats. Instead of, you know, doing their own digging and investigating and so forth, they really just went along with this human interest story about the 9/11 wives and how they were fighting to pass this bill, and it was all ridiculous. I mean, I don’t know what the families’ wives know about intelligence, but you know, Tim mentioned the Washington Post story that came out. That story came out after the bill was passed in Congress. The media finally got around to saying, “Well now, there’s some provisions in the bill that we ought to look at more carefully.” But, you know, of course, the horse was not only out of the barn, but over trampling the people of the town already. So, that was too late.
AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of Iran, our latest story today in headlines, there’s a U.S. military base being built on the Afghan border with Iran, and then the Atlantic Monthly revealing Pentagon planners recently carried out simulated attacks on Iran.
ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, I think that despite everything, the chances are fairly high that the Bush administration, within the next two years, will get into some sort of military confrontation with Iran. One of the things that’s holding them back is there’s zero legal justification for that attack. If you remember with Iraq, they trumpeted the fact there were the UN resolutions that allowed the United States to somehow aggregate to itself the power to invade Iraq unilaterally. Of course, Kofi Annan said that the war was illegal; nevertheless, they had the debate. With Iran, they have no justification for an attack. So, I think they’re scrambling to figure out one or maybe they’ll try to provoke a military confrontation. But it’s clearly — now with the neoconservatives back in the saddle, of course none of them have been fired. They’re the only people who haven’t been ousted for the bungling in Iraq. They’re all still in place. They’re now beginning to drum up the same kind of charges against Iran — terrorism and nuclear threat and so forth — that justified the attack on Iraq. So, I’m blackly pessimistic about what’s going to happen there. I don’t think that the European negotiations are going to succeed beyond sort of delaying the confrontation enough for the Bush administration to get its ducks in a row. I do think that, you know, sometime by 2006 we’re going to see some sort of a serious military crisis developing there.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Dreyfuss, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Investigative reporter, author of the new blog at tompaine.com. Also Timothy Edgar on the line, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.