The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which protects Americans from having their phones bugged by their government, was passed in 1978 in reaction to public revelations about President Nixon’s breezy penchant for authorizing the FBI to wiretap U.S. citizens (including Mort Halperin, a senior staff member of Nixon’s own National Security Council) without first establishing whether they were suspected to have committed any crime. FISA created a Foreign Intelligence Security Court to screen domestic wiretap requests related to national security, but after 9/11 the White House started to bypass this procedure, seemingly in violation of federal law.
The warrantless wiretaps were belatedly revealed by the New York Times in late 2005, and President Bush admitted to having authorized them. The Senate judiciary committee held oversight hearings to learn how the White House and Justice Department justified end-running the rules, intent and reporting requirements of FISA. Dissatisfied with the answers it was getting, the judiciary committee requested further documentation, extended deadlines, and finally issued a subpoena.
In the latest face-off, Shannen W. Coffin, a lawyer for Vice President Cheney, asked for more time to respond and chided the committee chairman for committing procedural errors. But he also acknowledged that the White House harbored documents that “may be responsive” to Congress’ investigation. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy considers this admission a “good first step.”
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