I am not one to get my panties in a twist thinking that the world will come to an end if a few of my personal communications are captured in a digital dragnet by some dumb brute of a super computer and then released back into the ether without any human on planet earth laying eyes or ears on what was contained in those messages.
It bothers me that the potential for abuse is there – as it should trouble any conservative worth their salt. But to exaggerate the threat to civil liberties by positing the notion that while my Auntie Midge is giving her famous recipe for fruit cake over the phone or via email to one of my nieces that NSA spies are avidly listening in and faithfully taking notes on exactly how much rum should be added to give her delicacy its enormous heft is silly.
Actually, given the weight of the damn thing, there’s a good chance the NSA would see it as a weapon of mass destruction and “disappear” dear Auntie by renditioning her to some dark hole of a prison in eastern Europe. Not that we do that kind of thing anymore, right?
This is the essence of the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” leaked by the New York Times in December of 2005. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:
What good comes of insuring our survival at the expense of losing some of our liberty?
If one of our cities was destroyed by a nuclear weapon smuggled into the country by al Qaeda, I daresay the relatives of the dead would answer that question much differently than the arm chair civil libertarians who so blithely condemn the Administrationâ€™s actions in the aftermath of 9/11. There are even those who say that there is no choice to make, that our survival as a nation is not at stake at all therefore any argument that includes a loss of privacy rights as a way to head off an al Qaeda attack is setting up a straw man to justify oppression.
I donâ€™t have much sympathy for that argument but I am troubled that our government has skirted so close to the line involving spying on innocent American citizens and may have in fact crossed it. Ultimately, it must come down to a question of responsibility. You and I are not responsible for the safety and security of the United States. The Constitution has vested that awesome responsibility in the office of the President. In the end, where you come down on this controversy depends on how much you trust the occupant of that office not to abuse his authority nor misuse the frightening power our technological prowess has bestowed upon his government to invade our most private and personal spaces.
For if in fact we are in a war for the survival of our republic â€“ and our enemies themselves have made it abundantly clear that this is what the War on Terror is all about â€“ we are in grave danger if we give in to the temptation to turn the issue of liberty versus security into a political club in order to beat oneâ€™s political opponent for acting dictatorially or just as bad, unpatriotically. The issue is too important for the kind of lazy generalities being tossed about regarding an absolutist position on civil liberties or aiding and abetting the enemy in a time of war. In the end, we must trust each other or perish.
Those “lazy generalities” have supplanted thoughtful argument as each side in the debate has now established their own narrative about domestic spying by this Administration and will brook no change in the parameters of those narratives to reflect new information or an altered perception of the man in the White House who sits atop the national security ziggurat with the capability to do enormous violence to the very concepts of privacy and liberty.
New information such as this should give everyone pause and cause them to re-evaluate their positions:
The Bush administration’s chief intelligence official said yesterday that President Bush authorized a series of secret surveillance activities under a single executive order in late 2001. The disclosure makes clear that a controversial National Security Agency program was part of a much broader operation than the president previously described.
The disclosure by Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, appears to be the first time that the administration has publicly acknowledged that Bush’s order included undisclosed activities beyond the warrantless surveillance of e-mails and phone calls that Bush confirmed in December 2005.
In a letter to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), McConnell wrote that the executive order following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks included “a number of . . . intelligence activities” and that a name routinely used by the administration—the Terrorist Surveillance Program—applied only to “one particular aspect of these activities, and nothing more.”
We’ve had other aspects to the overall surveillance program released in dribs and drabs over the past 2 years. Data mining and getting the cooperation of Telecom companies to monitor the “switching stations” where a lot of overseas phone traffic is channeled are evidently two of the elements that make up the “broader operations” connected to the TSP.
What else? Just what is the NSA up to?
There is no agency of the federal government with the potential to do more mischief to our liberty and privacy than the National Security Agency. Anyone who has read William Bamford’s The Puzzle Palace – which described NSA spying on Americans in the 60’s – should think long and hard about the monumental leaps in technology since that time which allow for even more intrusive and thorough efforts to invade our “private space” than ever before.
At the same time, reforms at the NSA have made it less likely that these abuses will take place. Procedures not even thought of back in the 60’s that relate to the way data is handled are supposed to protect American citizens from the kind of snooping done by the agency in the past.
But the reforms will not stop an aggressive executive if he is hell bent on pushing the outside of the envelope of constitutionality and legality by using the capabilities of the NSA to spy on Americans. All we can do is trust that oversight by the intelligence committees in Congress will prevent the President from crossing the line.
At this point, I am unsure if that oversight has been effective. Nor am I convinced that the Administration has been forthright with the intel committees (or the so called “Group of 8” made up the chair and vice chair of each committee plus the leaders of the House and Senate from both parties) in their description of all of the activities associated with the TSP.
I am fully cognizant of the fact that these intelligence activities represent the most closely held secrets of our government. And despite those on the left who dismiss the idea of giving the enemy an advantage by leaking the existence of these programs and their inner workings, I believe that al-Qaeda has benefited from the leaks which have revealed enough that they may be able to circumvent at least some of our efforts to keep track of them and discover their plans. (The idea that al-Qaeda already knew we’d try to keep track of them is true. What’s silly is the notion that they had much of a clue as to how we’d do it.) For this reason, the irresponsibility of the New York Times and other publications that continue to leak classified information should be condemned.
What all of this back and forth comes down to is the same thing it came down to 20 months ago when the existence of the TSP was leaked by the Times; how much do you trust the man in the White House to protect our civil liberties while carrying out domestic surveillance activities with the potential for harm?
I must admit to being a lot less sanguine today about the desire of those who wield such enormous power to view the balancing act between liberty and security with the seriousness that the rest of us do.