Friday, May 12, 2006


Tap, tap, tap

Ah, as soon as I think that the news has become routine, something new crops up: to add to the now-well-known wiretapping of international phone calls, USA Today now tells us that the NSA has build a database of who called whom domestically, with the help of AT&T, BellSouth, and Verizon (happily, I use none of those). Here's an expansion on the story from the Washington Post.

By now, this has been discussed in nearly every blog that cares about it, and there's not too much more to say. I'll just add my voice to those who point out that this is an illegal invasion of privacy. And I'll repeat my mantra that this president must go.

Update (10:30 a.m.): The Washington Post has a poll that shows that 63% of Americans think this is OK:

The new survey found that 63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, including 44 percent who strongly endorsed the effort. Another 35 percent said the program was unacceptable, which included 24 percent who strongly objected to it.

A slightly larger majority—66 percent—said they would not be bothered if NSA collected records of personal calls they had made, the poll found.
I have to think that this reflects the "I have nothing to hide," attitude that I've often seen. Unfortunately, that quite misses the point of our rules against unreasonable search and seizure, and related civil rights, where are there to defend against abuses by the government. You have nothing to hide until someone decides that you do, and that decision is, as history has often shown us, not under your control.

The WaPo also reports today that "impeachment is off the table", according to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi:

Seeking to choke off a Republican rallying cry, the House's top Democrat has told colleagues that the party will not seek to impeach President Bush even if it gains control of the House in November's elections, her office said last night.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) told her caucus members during their weekly closed meeting Wednesday "that impeachment is off the table; she is not interested in pursuing it," spokesman Brendan Daly said.


Update (11:30 a.m.): The New York Times weighs in, with an editorial calling for accountability and limitation of power:

President Bush began his defense of the N.S.A. program yesterday by invoking, as he often does, Sept. 11. The attacks that day firmed the nation's resolve to protect itself against its enemies, but they did not give the president the limitless power he now claims to intrude on the private communications of the American people.

Update (15 May): More recent polls from USA Today and Newsweek differ from the WaPo poll, showing instead that a majority of us do not like this at all. Ah... that's better. It still doesn't do anything about it, but at least it means that we may not be as unaware as the first poll made it seem. (And the Newsweek article contains a great Bush-as-Alfred-E-Neuman photo.)


Anonymous said...

not only must he go but he must be prosecuted along with every single person who helped do this.all employees of NSA,pentagon,justice department or anyone else .at&t ,bell south,and whoever else agreed to this must be penalized triple what they normally would have to pay because this is abuse of power and scummy under handed dealings to obtain power and money.
all senators and congress members that "knew" of this program and agreed with it must also be penalized as this is blatant disregard to the constitution.

Jim Fenton said...

FISA (18 USC 3121, 3123) is fairly specific about this sort of activity, referred to (for historical reasons) as a "pen register" (if applied to the caller) or a "trap and trace" (if applied to the callee). The rules are looser than for content interception: the court doesn't need to approve the intercept, but the law enforcement agency needs to certify to the court that the activity is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.

Apparently (when challenged by Qwest) the Government refused to go to the Court to make this certification. That makes the activity illegal. It really doesn't matter what the polls say.

If a majority of Americans think this is OK, then Congress should change the law. I believe that, given a chance to think about the question and consider the implications of such surveillance, they wouldn't think it was such a good idea after all.

scouter573 said...

I just can't figure out what information they want to get out of this wiretapping database. Suppose they know who the bad guys are - just follow them and leave the rest of us alone (that "probably cause" thing). If they don't know who the bad guys are, what possible unique calling pattern could a bad guy exhibit? A tendency to call cheap pizza delivery places? If the bad guys were dim enough that they didn't think they were being watched, one might - maybe possibly - might be able to find something by watching calling patterns. But if the bad guys are smart enough to assume they're being watched, they can just create bogus calling patterns to create an overwhelming number false suspects. The problem of false positives is enormous. So what information of any use at all could anyone possibly learn from this program?

Barry Leiba said...

Well, Mr Scout, I think the information they're getting is simply that: raw information. They're (1) amassing, under the assumption that once they have a large amount of raw data there might be something they can do with it, now or in the future, and (2) fishing, in the hope of finding something serendipitous.

Neither is unusual nor surprising, but their ability to do either unchallenged and without judicial oversight would be worrying. Think about what they might do with the data. If, at some time, they start to think that ol' Redwood Scout might be stockpiling used laptops up there in a cabin somewhere in the northwest, to be used in an attempt to create anarchy. They can go check the database and see who he's been calling, and who'd been calling him.

It's sort of like keeping server logs ? we only need them after we've figured out that we need them. So we want to have the data around, juuuuuust in case.

scouter573 said...

I guess if I were going to spend lots of bucks fighting terrorists, I'd spend it on real intelligence efforts or on scanners for containers coming in to my harbors on ships, not on hopeless accumulations of data.

Barry Leiba said...

So would I, but that presupposes that they actually are trying to fight terrorism here, and not just using it as an excuse to spy on and collect data about Americans. You and I see through that, but some are less astute (warning: satirical post containing Bad Language that we will not repeat here).

And what makes the WaPo survey more worrisome is that it shows that it's not just the, uh, morons that they've fooled ? fully 2/3 of those surveyed think this is an OK way to fight terrorism, and the count is probably higher, since the remaining 1/3 contains some who think this'll work but are unwilling to give up the privacy for it.