Friday, January 27, 2006

So what do I think?
I've gotten a few emails from people recently asking me to address the allegedly illegal wiretaps. These people know that I often describe my political philosophy as limiting government to necessary services that cannot be provided by the open market with the necessary effectiveness (e.g. national defense), and otherwise keeping it out of the lives of individuals. To boil it down: "keep me safe and leave me alone." Most of what the federal government does today, I wish it wouldn't—but that's a post for another day.

The reason people want me to respond to the wiretapping fiasco is because it seems to be an interesting nexus of the two clauses of the above statement, found directly at the point where the two conflict. All must admit that the Bush administration opened this program in an effort to keep the country safe. They are not spying on political opponents (hence the lack of traction for the Watergate parallels), nor are they profiling on any racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, or religious basis (the Bush people seem to bend over backwards to convince CAIR that they are not waging a war on Islam—yet another post for another day). These, from what we know, seem to be strictly an effort to do what they felt was necessary to protect the nation. That fact cannot be disputed. The necessity of the decision is up for grabs, but not the fact that they thought it to be essential.

So what do I think? I think a couple of things, at least once in a while. Oh, you mean what do I think about this? Okay, let me try to answer that with some level of coherence, if I can.

First, let's address the "keep me safe" portion of my philosophy. Does this program keep the American public safer? I honestly don't know. We do not have enough details on the operation at this point to comment. We do not know if the government has actually been able to interdict any Al Qaida plots using these wiretaps; we do not know if they've gained information about the organizational structure of Al Qaida. In short, we don't have any idea what has been accomplished thanks to these efforts. And, frankly, I wish we didn't know as much as we do.

We do know that Al Quaida's having knowledge about this program can't possibly be making us any safer. As long as they believe they are making phone calls in private, there is a chance that someone will reveal information. We've already seen how news articles on the CIA/NSA's interception of Bin Laden's satphone calls were followed by Bin Laden's ceasing to use his satphone. We had him pretty much pinned down, listening to every conversation he had, and thanks to overzealous newsmen and women we lost that intelligence capability. Does anyone really doubt that, if it was effective in the first place, this program will yield dramatically less following this media frenzy?

So, without more information I can't judge the program with any accuracy, and I wish we didn't even have the information we do at this point. A real catch 22 for someone who would really like to be able to pass judgment, is it not?

Since we really don't know enought to determine if the wiretaps are/were necessary in the first place, let me address the question of whether or not W should have gone to Congress for authorization. Personally, I don't think so. Now bear in mind that this is not a legal judgment—I'm not qualified to make one of those, and the experts who are seem unable to determine an answer either—but a practical one that I'm offering based on the assumption that some beneficial information was gained by this operation.

Congress leaks like a sieve. Anything you tell Congress will be known by the general public in a few days. Particularly this Congress. Why? Because they act like a bunch of pampered children who throw a tantrum whenever Daddy doesn't consult them. Can you honestly picture John Kerry keeping quiet about this if he found out? Of course not—he believes that Bush's wiretapping program is a threat to national security itself, and that the people have a right to know. That's fine, he's entitled to believe that—but then Bush should be entitled not to tell him about it. I justify this through the same reasoning as I condemned the press coverage above—the program, if effective at all, is most effective if those being observed do not know about it. If telling Congress would result in a leak (which I posit it would), then the Bush administration should be no more compelled to tell them than they should to tell the press.

This is part of waging war, and we need to untie the President's hands to wage that war. "But RFTR, what about the second part of your philosophy. What about "and leave me alone"?

Ha. How did I know you'd ask that?

Yeah, on some level this violates my "leave me alone" philosophy. And sure, you can argue the "slippery slope" theory that if we let Bush spy for terrorists we're going to let him spy for women who want abortions next—but then you'd be an idiot. This is not a slippery slope. Again, we don't know enough specifics to really judge the program, but, from what I understand, this was/is a pretty narrowly defined operation. According to what I've read, the NSA was intercepting any international calls made to or from a suspected terrorist. Calls were recorded and analyzed on that basis. This was not a broad data-mining protocol.

And let me propose an analogy. Osama Bin Laden sends me a package from Iraq. Should the federal government be able to inspect that package, if it has a return address on it and they know it came from him? Of course they should. It would be stupid not to, right? God only knows what weaponry or explosives or whatever other terrorist tools he could be sending me. OK, how about if I send him a package? I'd say the same goes. I work in New York and walk by Rockefeller center and through Grand Central Station every day and could easily be sending him information to help plot an attack. Again, I think the government should be able to inspect that package.

Okay, now what if instead of OBL it's one of his lieutenants? Or one of their lieutenants? Or some known foot soldier in the Al Qaida ranks? I don't draw any distinction. These people are the enemy, and any one of them could be sending or receiving potentially devastating information or materials UPS.

So how is a phone call any different? We're not listening to you talk to your Aunt Mildred who's vacationing in Italy—we're listening to you talk to your buddy Muhammed Achmend Muhammed that you met in the desert who is planning a trip to make it rain in Seattle next month. Sure, he might just be getting the English wrong. Maybe he meant he wants to see it rain in Seattle—but maybe we should harden targets in the Pacific Northwest for the next month or so just in case. And when we prevent an attack thanks to those extra security measures, it's worth it.

And if every now and then some NSA agent overhears how Mildred can't find an outlet that will accept her hairdryer plug, what's really the harm?

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Now, let me add just one thing: did anyone else out there already assume that a program like this was in place like I did? For years I've been making jokes about the government agents listening in on my phone calls. I'd spout off a little hyperbole about how I'd love to see Teddy Kennedy drive off another bridge but not get out this time, and then add "To the FBI or Secret Service agents listening, that's just a joke—I have no intention of tampering with Senator Kennedy's brakes."

From the time I was a little boy I've believed that there are super computers at Fort Meade that record millions of conversations throughout the US and process them for words like "bomb, assassinate, president," etc., flagging any that contain those words and passing them off for human analysis.

To be perfectly honest, I was less shocked by the fact that the NSA was intercepting international phone calls and more shocked by a)the fact that so many were shocked by it, and 2)that they were limiting it to international calls.

1 comment:

Kobayashi Maru said...

The ironic part is, the Congress (or at least the committees on Intelligence, which I believe were briefed) kept quite silent on it - not a peep until the Dems decided they could make political hay of it. The fact that they didn't raise objections earlier and in private is a mystery. Nice post