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Ari Shapiro Explains...

Mar 3, 2008

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So, there are a thousand things I read about every day that I don't understand. I can not understand the Texas voting system. I still don't quite understand the writer's strike. And I cannot, for the life of me, understand what's going on with FISA. But, Justice correspondent and TOTN fill-in host extraordinaire Ari Shapiro has agreed to put an explanation right here, in this very spot, that even idiot creative writing majors like me can understand. Here it is:

Congress first passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in the 1970s, as a response to President Nixon's overreaching. The law created a secret court — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — inside the Justice Department. Congress told the White House that any time the President wants to wiretap an American in the US, he has to get permission from the judges on that court.

In 2005, the New York Times revealed that the Bush Administration established a secret wiretapping program after 9/11 that operated outside of FISA. The program tapped phone calls and email conversations with one end in the United States and one end overseas, without going through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. FISA has been amended many times since 1978, but the revelation of the Bush Administration's secret warrantless surveillance program prompted a new, far more heated debate about how to amend FISA again.

In August of 2007, Congress passed a bill called the "Protect America Act." It was essentially a short-term update to FISA. The Protect America Act established that the President does not need individual warrants to wiretap foreigners calling the United States, as long as the foreigners (and not the Americans on the other end of the call) are the target of the wiretap. The law would only last for six months, until Congress could come up with a more permanent solution. The bill did not include one provision that the Bush Admininstration badly wanted...immunity for telephone companies that cooperated with the White House's warrantless surveillance program after 9/11.

People who believe their privacy was violated under the Bush Administration's warrantless surveillance program have sued the phone companies that allegedly cooperated with the White House on the wiretaps. President Bush says any new spying law must protect those phone companies by throwing out the lawsuits. The Senate included immunity in its bill, but the House did not. Last month, before the House and Senate could resolve the issue, the Protect America Act expired.

Now the House and Senate are negotiating on whether to include phone company immunity in a new FISA law. They say they could reach an agreement as early as this week.

— Ari Shapiro

PHEW. Thank you, Ari. Could you please explain superdelegates to me now?

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