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WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE?
Magpie is a former journalist, attempted historian [No, you can't ask how her thesis is going], and full-time corvid of the lesbian persuasion. She keeps herself in birdseed by writing those bad computer manuals that you toss out without bothering to read them. She also blogs too much when she's not on deadline, both here and at Pacific Views.

Magpie roosts in Portland, Oregon, where she annoys her housemates (as well as her cats Medea, Whiskers, and Jane Doe) by attempting to play Irish music on the fiddle and concertina.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

If you're going to lie about something ...

You should try to make your lie believable.

This is especially true if you're a public official, because some damned blogger is going to fact-check you. (This used to be the job of the 'mainstream' press, but you know how that's turned out.)

Today's case in point involves US director of national intelligence Mike McConnell. In an interview [transcript here] with the El Paso Times earlier this week, McConnell claimed that the requirement that spy agencies get a FISA court warrant to conduct a foreign intelligence wiretap is making it hard for the nation's spy agencies to fight terrorism:

Q: Can't you get the warrant after the fact?

A: The issue is volume and time. Think about foreign intelligence.... My argument was that the intelligence community should not be restricted when we are conducting foreign surveillance against a foreigner in a foreign country, just by dint of the fact that it happened to touch a wire. We haven't done that in wireless for years.

Q: So you end up with people tied up doing paperwork?

A: It takes about 200 man hours to do one telephone number. Think about it from the judges standpoint. Well, is this foreign intelligence? Well how do you know it's foreign intelligence? Well what does Abdul calling Mohammed mean, and how do I interpret that? So, it's a very complex process, so now, I've got people speaking Urdu and Farsi and, you know, whatever, Arabic, pull them off the line have them go through this process to justify what it is they know and why and so on. And now you've got to write it all up and it goes through the signature process, take it through (the Justice Department), and take it down to the FISA court. So all that process is about 200 man hours for one number. We're going backwards, we couldn't keep up.

200 hours of paperwork? That sounds like a lot of time to this magpie. It also sounded like a lot to Ryan Singel at Threat Level, and he actually did the numbers on McConnell's claim:

In 2006, the government filed 2,181 such applications with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court. The court approved 2,176....

That means government employees spent 436,200 hours writing out foreign intelligence wiretaps in 2006. That's 53,275 workdays.

Let's assume dedicated government employees work 40 hours a week with two weeks off a year. That means there were 218 government employees with top secret clearances sitting in rooms, writing only FISA warrants.

Leaving aside the question of whether it really takes 200 hours to prepare a FISA warrant, I'd suggest that all the time spent putting together the supporting info for a warrant is a good thing (and that most of the 200 hours McConnell claims is spent doing stuff that would need to be done anyway). Wouldn't you agree that the fact that intelligence agents (in McConnell's words) 'go through this process to justify what it is they know and why and so on'—basically, forcing them to make a good case for why a wiretap is needed— might help prospective wiretappers to better focus on what's really important once the FISA warrant lets them start eavesdropping?

Just asking.

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| | Posted by Magpie at 1:20 PM | Get permalink




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