07/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

FISA: Got Questions, Will (Help) Pay For Answers

I don't know any more about national security than John McCain claims to know about economics. So I'm puzzled by many aspects of the War on Terror -- for instance, the Senate's renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which, among other things, empowers the president to order wiretaps on American citizens.

Nor do I understand why the Democrats, who control Congress, approved retroactive immunity for the phone companies that have carried out the wiretapping so far, arguably outside FISA's legal limits.

Mostly, though, I would like to know a lot more about the wiretaps themselves.

It's too bad the Democrats didn't at least press for a deal: their support for immunity in return for full disclosure from the telecoms. That is, the names of everyone the administration spied on -- released, if not publicly, then to the FISA judge and, I would hope, Congressional leaders as well.

I don't know if such a deal would have held up in the courts, but it seems to me that there was still a way to get the information. Someone might have offered a reward of, say, $10-million to anyone at the phone companies who would come forward with verifiable records showing whose lines were tapped, when and for how long.

Surely such records exist. And the telecoms presumably would have them, since it was their people who flipped the switches and did whatever else it took to zero-in on the targets.

Maybe all is still not lost. Why not offer the reward now? It would have to be done on the Q-T, of course. And the whistle-blower(s) would remain anonymous. But even if the White House stonewalled, and even if the information had no legal standing, we at least would have a good idea of the extent of the wiretapping.

The thing is, we really need to know WHY the president and his people were so hot to do the tele-spying the way they did it. Why go outside FISA? Why circumvent a law that already allowed them to tap all they wanted, effectively without restraint? Why would they need to keep the operation secret even from the FISA judge, especially when FISA allowed them to wiretap for up to three days before notifying him?

There might be very good reasons for all of this. Maybe potential terrorist acts were so imminent, or the need for speed or total secrecy so dire, that there was no other way. If so, I think the administration could find a way to explain its rationale, in detail and verifiably, without compromising the security of its investigations.

On the other hand, it is possible that the wiretapping was carried out for less-defensible purposes, the disclosure of which, even to a single judge, would be disastrous for the White House.

For example, what if the targets included domestic critics of the administration? What if election year politics was a factor, the targets Democrats who threatened to unseat Republican incumbents and effect a power shift in Congress?

What if targets were not always individuals, but sometimes classes of people -- certain blue-state or blue-district voters, for instance? Or, simply, enrolled Democrats or their party leaders in key districts?

What if targets were profiled racially, ethnically or by religion, selected according to likely voting patterns -- or even for their perceived terrorist potential?

I know. This sounds like a Hollywood movie plot. And taken together, these scenarios do have the ring of a runaway conspiracy theory. But should we simply assume, then, that none of them is at least possible?

It's not as though the current administration has given us no cause to question its motives. The history of the Bush Justice Department alone (not to mention NASA, the EPA, FEMA, etc.) suggests that politics can't be ruled out even in this declared matter of national security.

Why the national news media are not looking into this question aggressively, I don't know. Maybe they do feel that it's just too outlandish a concern. But my guess is that, except for a few intrepid news operations, the industry is too underfinanced, too understaffed, and, in this post-9/11 climate of fear and finger-pointing, too skittish to seriously investigate any aspect of the War on Terror.

So if there's any hope of getting my FISA questions answered, I fear the Big Whistle-Blower's Reward will be the only way to go. Now if I can just find an inquiring mind or twelve with deep pockets. Or ... yeah, that's it:

Maybe a netroots campaign could raise the $10-million.