Your Lying Eyes

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11 May 2006

Just What Is The NSA Up To?

I think they're trying to find terrorists. I fully sympathize with those who are outraged (assuming their outrage is genuine and not opportunistic) over the latest revelations. In case the reception is bad in your cave, USA Today reported that the NSA is busy compiling a database of phone calls made in the U.S.
"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added.
Back in December, the Times reported that the NSA was monitoring telephone and e-mail communications in some cases between the U.S. and foreign countries. Since no warrants were sought for this surveillance even though such warrants are issued by a secret tribunal, normally rubber-stamped and can even be obtained retroactively, many feel this represents an egregious violation of Americans' civil rights.

But it seems more likely to me that rather than representing surveillance, these efforts are massive data mining efforts intended to uncover and understand communication patterns that could help zero in on terrorist plans. The presumption is that the administration is not seeking warrants because they're snooping where they have no business. But I think it's because warrants would be essentially irrelevant to what they're doing. To get a warrant, you need to identify individuals or specific cases. But what if, say, you want to monitor all phone calls originating from Kandahar (some of which would be to or from the U.S.) over a 24-hour period in order to discover certain communication patterns that could signal a potential terror cell?

Now perhaps we don't want the federal government doing any such activities without a warrant. As Paul Craig Roberts has said, "the purpose of the warrant is to be sure that the government is spying for legitimate purposes and not abusing the power to spy on political opponents for nefarious purposes." But what's going on here doesn't sound like eavesdropping in any conventional sense, and sounds more like the kind of intelligence gathering that didn't happen before 9/11 which had everyone up in arms in its aftermath. I'd feel a lot more comfortable if someone outside the administration could confirm this, though.


Anonymous Harlem said...

There is clearly a "slippery slope/double edged sword" problem here.
No doubt that every American wants to feel protected from terrorism. At the same time, most Americans are very protective of their privacy and fearful of overreaching government spying/monitoring/observation of their activities.
"I'm not a terrorist, so leave me alone" is the basic mantra. "Go after the REAL terrorists, not us regular people".
This is a tough balance and the current administration has done little to sell the case for what they are doing. The Patriot Act, which was well accepted shortly after 9/11, was seen as overly invasive not long thereafter.
As we get further away from a domestic attack by foreign terrorists, the groundswell increases for our citizenry to be left alone and free from telephone/Internet/library record invasions of privacy. To continue down this current invasive road will likely give rise to more anti-government hate groups ala Tim McVeavy.
The other side of the argument is that the external terrorists are just waiting for such internal USA debate to result in our guards being let down to infiltrate and launch the next attack. Remember that the London terrorists were all homegrown GB citizens.
Very tough call. I don't want the government knowing (as they already do) every porn site I visit but I also don't want to see more domestic terrorist attacks, if they can be prevented by such intelligence gathering. I think I'd feel better if the intelligence gatherers had a better track record. There are plenty of stories out there about what was known, missed or should have been known about 9/11 before it occurred.
If we are now gathering intelligence on everybody, can it possibly yeild legitimate, actionable results? As I write this, I'm listening to the "new Beatles" singing "Free As A Bird".
John Lennon is turning over in his grave at what this "civilized" world has evolved to.

May 12, 2006 7:26 PM  
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May 23, 2006 4:18 AM  

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