Politics & Policy

A Better Fisa

Some meaningful change in the intel-reform bill.

We are dubious that the much-ballyhooed reform bill, passed last week, will improve American intelligence. But the caterwauling over one of the new law’s actual improvements is encouraging. As long as reform is merely a euphemism for bureaucratic reshuffling (and bloating), the September 10 crowd is all for it. But the minute it approaches meaningful change, self-anointed civil-liberties guardians and many Democrats instinctively resist it.

The new bill provides a slight but important addition to the government’s authority to eavesdrop on, or search, would-be terrorists under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). That 1978 law permits federal agents conducting intelligence investigations (as opposed to ordinary criminal investigations) to wiretap or search operatives of “foreign powers” (i.e., other countries or international terrorist organizations) who act inside the U.S. Such investigations are primarily aimed at intelligence gathering to protect national security, not at prosecution. The feds, moreover, may not act on their own; they must first obtain approval from the FISA court by showing probable cause that their target is an “agent of a foreign power.”

Experience, though, has shown significant gaps in FISA. It does not reach the so-called “lone wolf” scenario–i.e., a non-American who may be unaffiliated with a recognized terrorist organization but is nonetheless preparing a WMD strike. Nor does it account for the more common situation in which investigators suspect a non-American is plotting a terror attack but have not yet identified the foreign power to which he is tied.

“The shrieking over the new law

does not bode well for

other real reforms.”

The latter is the Zacarias Moussaoui situation. In August 2001, he was in custody on immigration violations and had appeared to engage in hijacking preparations. But the FBI refused its investigators’ request to seek a FISA search warrant–which might have uncovered ties to the ongoing 9/11 plot–because they lacked evidence that Moussaoui was connected to al Qaeda. That evidence was not developed until after 9/11, by which point it was, of course, too late.

The new law fills these gaps. It does not permit surveillance of Americans. Even regarding non-Americans, it does not authorize an investigation unless the FBI first shows the FISA court probable cause that the target is engaging in or preparing for terrorism. It is a sensible, modest improvement. The shrieking over it does not bode well for other real reforms, such as the immigration-enforcement measures abandoned last week, supposedly to be taken up next year.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

Most Popular

The Pollster Who Thinks Trump Is Ahead

The polling aggregator on the website RealClearPolitics shows the margin in polls led by Joe Biden in a blue font and the ones led by Donald Trump in red. For a while, the battleground states have tended to be uniformly blue, except for polls conducted by the Trafalgar Group. If you are a firm believer only in ... Read More

The Pollster Who Thinks Trump Is Ahead

The polling aggregator on the website RealClearPolitics shows the margin in polls led by Joe Biden in a blue font and the ones led by Donald Trump in red. For a while, the battleground states have tended to be uniformly blue, except for polls conducted by the Trafalgar Group. If you are a firm believer only in ... Read More

Election-Meddling Redux

It is not an attack on the American election. It is an influence operation aimed at the American media, using the $60 billion per annum American intelligence apparatus to pull it off. And it’s working. On Wednesday night, it was suddenly announced that U.S. security services would conduct a press ... Read More

Election-Meddling Redux

It is not an attack on the American election. It is an influence operation aimed at the American media, using the $60 billion per annum American intelligence apparatus to pull it off. And it’s working. On Wednesday night, it was suddenly announced that U.S. security services would conduct a press ... Read More
Culture

Equality and Envy

We are not the same. Neither men, nor women, nor races, nor ages, nor nationalities, nor in wealth, nor in training, nor in beauty. We are not equal in any way. And that is a reason to be proud and happy, because at the end of the day we are human and not the product of some factory. Let us once and for all ... Read More
Culture

Equality and Envy

We are not the same. Neither men, nor women, nor races, nor ages, nor nationalities, nor in wealth, nor in training, nor in beauty. We are not equal in any way. And that is a reason to be proud and happy, because at the end of the day we are human and not the product of some factory. Let us once and for all ... Read More
Film & TV

Bill Murray: The King of Cool

Bill Murray’s Bill Murray impression is priceless in On the Rocks, the way John Wayne did a fantastic John Wayne parody in True Grit and Al Pacino found a new level of Pacino-ness in Scent of a Woman. I want to quote every line of dialogue Murray delivers in his new movie for Apple TV+ -- every hilarious piece ... Read More
Film & TV

Bill Murray: The King of Cool

Bill Murray’s Bill Murray impression is priceless in On the Rocks, the way John Wayne did a fantastic John Wayne parody in True Grit and Al Pacino found a new level of Pacino-ness in Scent of a Woman. I want to quote every line of dialogue Murray delivers in his new movie for Apple TV+ -- every hilarious piece ... Read More