Kudos to the House for ignoring Trump's nonsense. Let's finish the job and reauthorize FISA

Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Political News

Jaime Castenada Jr. was reportedly out celebrating a family baptism when he met an alleged drug dealer in Hammond, Indiana, now accused of selling him $20 of cocaine. Within a few hours, Castenada was found outside, police say, propped between a car and a tree, bleeding from the nose. The drug had been laced with dangerous fentanyl, a coroner found, and death came swiftly for the 27-year-old father of two, as it has for the 100,000-plus Americans that opioids are killing every year.

The opioid epidemic that has rocked America for decades just keeps getting worse, and Congress has done little to stop the flow of these deadly narcotics into the U.S. A bipartisan border bill that would have made a big positive difference fell to election-year politics, after ex-President Donald Trump opposed it in a transparent effort to deny relief for one of President Joe Biden’s biggest headaches.

Last week, Trump was at it again, opposing legislation to reform Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes warrantless spying on foreigners abroad. This page has long supported FISA, while acknowledging that it’s vulnerable to abuse. The program has been vital for protecting America. It has saved American lives, and Trump, aided by the far-right bomb-throwers in the House GOP, tried to scuttle an opportunity to expand it to address the opioid crisis.

On Friday, cooler heads prevailed, and America is on track to get an enhanced weapon against the opioid plague. Under 702, U.S. authorities work with telecom companies to secretly gather phone and electronic communications of foreigners outside the U.S., a process that needs to be more restrictive so that private information from American citizens isn’t swept up in the net. Surveillance is focused on terrorism, nuclear proliferation and cyberattacks.

Along with catching terrorists, spies and hackers, 702 also has shown promise in exposing the network of drug smugglers supplying deadly fentanyl. We support not only renewing 702 but expanding its use against opioid trafficking — which in Illinois is killing more than twice as many people as motor-vehicle accidents, and more than twice as many people as homicides. The number of deaths is up more than 30-fold over the past decade, and, right now, there’s nothing to stop it from continuing to skyrocket.

What’s needed is a gloves-off response targeting Chinese companies that produce the chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl and Mexican dealers who mix the dangerous concoction and spirit it across the border. In just the month of February, the California National Guard alone seized more than 1 million fentanyl pills and over a thousand pounds of powdered fentanyl. A dose the size of a rice grain can be fatal. Obviously, a mind-boggling amount is getting through.

It’s worthwhile to consider how America became such a fentanyl hotbed. In the 1970s and ‘80s, heroin and other addictive opium derivatives were a serious problem but came nowhere near killing as many people as opioids do today. Europe, too, has long dealt with the effects of heroin addiction.

During the 1990s, however, America and Europe diverged. In the U.S., Purdue Pharma, run by the notorious Sackler family, took advantage of lax oversight to make a fortune pushing synthetic opioids. Lying about the addictive properties of its cash-cow opioid OxyContin, Purdue flooded the streets with pills, raking in billions of dollars while destroying lives and communities. In Europe, restrictions on pharmaceutical companies prevented their executives from following the Sacklers’ lethal playbook.


As a result, apart from hot spots like Scotland, fentanyl is rarely abused in Europe. In the U.S., however, when Purdue was finally driven out of the pill-pushing business, the enormous market it created for opioids was filled with fentanyl. As of 2021, more than a million Americans had died, from babies and first responders to the elderly. The most vulnerable are young men, in their teens and 20s, who often have no idea they’re ingesting such dangerous stuff.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in a month or two on a bankruptcy-court deal that would let the Sacklers walk off with much of their fortune and no further liability. The same avoidance of consequences has been mostly true of the Chinese and Mexican smugglers who have filled the gap left by Purdue and its ilk.

Not everyone is getting off the hook, however. In the death of Castenada, the 29-year-old Chicago resident accused of selling him $20 worth of drugs is facing severe criminal penalties. He’s been charged with felonies that, if he’s convicted, could lead to decades in prison.

Anyone who sells someone a fatal overdose of an illegal substance must be punished, of course. But locking up small-scale dealers is not going to solve this devastating problem. Expanding Section 702 of FISA, on the other hand, could help a great deal.

At the eleventh hour, the House came through, voting 243-147 on Friday to advance legislation to the Senate that not only contains significant reforms of 702, but also expands its use to target foreign drug traffickers. The vote split both parties and there are no guarantees, but it appears likely the Senate will approve the bill, and President Joe Biden will sign this controversial but necessary measure.

Score one for law and order.


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