Friday, May 12, 2006

Amerika II: Big Brother Is Listening

Surprise! Surprise! The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans.

USA Today reports that:
The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime.
The program apparently does not involve the NSA actually listening to or recording conversations. Sources told USA Today that the agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, although that distinction is lost on me and should be lost on anyone who is sick and tired of the Bush administration lying through its teeth and robbing them of their civil liberties.

The New York Times first revealed the existence of the warrantless surveillance late last year, but the USA Today story painted a far broader picture of a program that is breathtaking in its scope.

Meanwhile, President Bush is having trouble getting his story straight. As usual.

He claimed that
The privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities. . . . Our efforts are focused on links to Al Qaeda and their known affiliates.
You know, the old "trust me" thing.


Lost in the uproar over the USA Today scoop is the fact that while Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth rolled over and were paid to do so by the NSA, Qwest refused to play ball.

That's because Qwest believed that it would be violating federal privacy laws to do so, according to Joseph Nacchio, its CEO at the time.

Qwest also asked the NSA to allow the Foreign Intelligence Security Court to take a look at its proposal. It refused.

Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth all issued statements saying they had not broken any laws.


Meanwhile, the Justice Department has abruptly ended it's inquiry into the NSA program because the spy agency won't give its lawyers security clearances.

H. Marshall Jarrett of the department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) explains that

We have been unable to make any meaningful progress in our investigation because OPR has been denied security clearances for access to information about the NSA program.

"Ugh," commenting at Washington Monthly, nails the Republican meme for the whole sordid affair:
1. This report is not true.

2. Even if it is true, it's perfectly legal.

3. Even if it's not legal, the law is outdated and needs to be changed.

4. And in any event the President can ignore the law because of his inherent powers as Commander-in-Chief.

5. And this is a vital program necessary to protect the United States from terrorists who have the power to destroy life as we know it.

6. Democrats are pussies!

Let's be clear. The NSA's data mining is not illegal per se. Wiretapping is not illegal per se. But listening in on a conversation when the parties have a reasonable expectation of privacy without a court order is illegal. And having an enormous surveillance program in our midst that is run by officials answerable to no one is frightening.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo gets to the crux of the mischief in pointing out this paragraph buried deep in a Washington Post story:
Government access to call records is related to the previously disclosed eavesdropping program, sources said, because it helps the NSA choose its targets for listening.

Josh says that this seems to be key.

This isn't yet another program with civil liberties concerns hanging around it. It's an integral part of one program. This is the initial cull, from which targets of interest -- that wouldn't be able to meet "probable cause" standards -- are chosen for actual monitoring.

The telecoms also are culpable and shouldn't be let off the hook.

They honor wiretap requests all the time so long as there are warrants. In this instance, there not only were no warrants, but they accepted money to break the law. I don't have much hope, but maybe Sen. Arlen Specter will give them a good working over when their head honchos appear at the hearings he says he'll call.

By the by, CNN's Jack Cafferty had this to say about Specter last night:
We better all hope nothing happens to Arlen Specter, the Republican head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, cause he might be all that's standing between us and a full-blown dictatorship in this country.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich butted in with this observation:
I'm not going to defend the indefensible. . . . I'm prepared to defend a very aggressive anti-terrorist campaign, and I'm prepared to defend the idea that the government ought to know who's making the calls, as long as that information is only used against terrorists, and as long as the Congress knows that it's underway. But I don't think the way they've handled this can be defended by reasonable people. It is sloppy.
Sloppy is not the half of it. The loss of civil liberties is irreversible. Be scared, Amerika. Be very scared.


Elsewhere in the U.S. intelligence universal, a deservedly harsh light is being shined on the CIA. You'll recall that's the agency Bush vowed to reform in the wake of it's failure to anticipate the 9/11 attacks.

David Ignatius reveals that the CIA is an even bigger mess than we realized in a Washington Post op-ed column today:
To understand what went so badly wrong at the CIA under Porter Goss, it's worth examining the career of his executive director, the onomatopoetic Kyle "Dusty" Foggo. His rise illustrates the conservative cronyism, leak paranoia and political vendettas that undermined Goss's tenure. . . .

The chronic mismanagement of the CIA under Goss and [staff director Patrick] Murray has been an open secret for many months, and the real question is why it took the Bush White House so long to fix it. When I posed this question a few weeks ago to a senior administration official, he repeated the line that the agency was full of leakers and obstructionists. The political vendetta against the CIA went to the top, in other words. It did real damage to the country before President Bush finally called a halt.
(News Flash: CNN reports that the FBI commenced a search of Foggo's home on Friday afternoon.)


The Washington Post's Charles Robinson captures the whole ball of wax nicely:

Step back for a moment. There's an understandable tendency, with this administration, to succumb to a kind of "outrage fatigue." Pre-cooked intelligence on Iraq, secret CIA prisons, Abu Ghraib -- the accretion is numbing, and it's easy just to say "there they go again" and count the months until the Decider heads home to Texas for good. Bush and his people have tried to turn flouting the law into a virtue if it's a law they find inconvenient. They've tried to radically change our concept of privacy. We already knew the NSA was somehow monitoring phone calls, so what's the big deal?

The big deal is that now we know that the administration -- I'll say "apparently," although if the report were untrue I think the president would have denied it -- is keeping track of the phone calls of millions of citizens who have nothing at all to do with terrorism. Bush has tried to convince us that the overwhelming majority of Americans are not affected by domestic surveillance, but now we know that the opposite is true: The overwhelming majority of us are.

Be scared, Amerika, be very scared.

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