The Wiretapping Debate
The "nut" graf:
The current debate about government wiretapping of U.S. citizens inside the United States as part of the war on terrorism, like the debate before it about the torture of terror suspects, and the debate before that one about U.S. government prison camps at Guantanamo and in Eastern Europe, are all framed as arguments about the divisibility of freedom. They are framed that way by the good guys—meaning, of course, the side I agree with, which is the side of the civil libertarians who oppose these measures. That is part of why the good guys are losing. The arguments all seem to pit hard practicality on one side against sentiment, if not empty sentimentality, on the other. There are the folks who are fighting a war to protect us from a terrible enemy, and there are the folks getting in their way with a lot of fruity abstractions. You can note all you want the irony of the government trampling American values in the name of protecting them (yes, yes, like destroying that village in Vietnam in order to save it). The hard men and hard woman who are prosecuting this war for the Bush administration can turn that point, rather effectively, on its head. If the cost of losing the war and the cost of winning it are both measured in the same currency—American values, especially freedom—then giving up some freedom in order to avoid losing all of it is obviously the right thing to do.
President Bush characterizes the NSA domestic spying program as a "vital tool" against terrorism, while Vice President Cheney says it has saved "thousands of lives."
The FBI begs to differ, according a story in today's New York Times, which says that the NSA sent the bureau a flood of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and names, requiring hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips a month.
Let's not overlook the fact that the FBI is easily the whiniest of the U.S. intelligence agencies in the post-9/11 world and has been better at fighting turf wars than terrorists. But the Times notes that virtually all of the NSA information led to dead ends or innocent Americans, which (yet again) certainly puts the lie to the Bush-Cheney defense.
Says the Times:
F.B.I. officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators. The spy agency was collecting much of the data by eavesdropping on some Americans' international communications and conducting computer searches of phone and Internet traffic. Some F.B.I. officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans' privacy.
As the bureau was running down those leads, its director, Robert S. Mueller III, raised concerns about the legal rationale for a program of eavesdropping without warrants, one government official said. Mr. Mueller asked senior administration officials about "whether the program had a proper legal foundation," but deferred to Justice Department legal opinions, the official said.