A couple of days ago, I said “weâ€™re observing is a textbook example of how people who have a choice allow themselves to become subject to dictatorship.” In the past 24 hours this became even more apparent.
Maybe a nanosecond of time elapsed between the revelation of the NSA’s phone data mining program and knee-jerk approval of it from much of the Right. It was hard to tell. And the spinning continues. “Only a paranoid solipsist could feel threatened by the recently revealed calling analysis program,” writes Heather Mac Donald in The Weekly Standard.
As a practical matter, no one’s privacy is violated by such analysis. … True, the government can de-anonymize the data if connections to terror suspects emerge, and it is not known what threshold of proof the government uses to put a name to critical phone numbers. But until that point is reached, your privacy is at greater risk from the Goodyear blimp at a Stones concert than from the NSA’s supercomputers churning through trillions of zeros and ones representing disembodied phone numbers.
Until that point is reached. We have no way of knowing where the NSA is setting that point, and since they are operating without proper oversight we have no way of knowing if, indeed, they are looking only for terrorist activity. We have to take it on faith that we’re safe from government surveillance. But, hey, out of millions of American telephone users, what are the chances the feds would take an interest in insignificant little you?
And even after that point is reached, the notion that 280 million Americans who have not been communicating with al Qaeda are at risk from this quadrillion-bit program is absurd. What exactly are the privacy advocates worried about? That an NSA agent will search the phone records of his ex-wife or of themselves? This quaint scenario completely misunderstands the scale of, and bureaucratic checks on, such data analysis programs.
It’s true that if the program is being run as it’s described to us (which we have to take on faith, of course) then the chances of having one’s own calls attract governmental interest are enormously small. Unless, perhaps, you ever call Middle Eastern friends or co-workers, or order falafel from a take-out place run by, say, Egyptian nationals living here on a green card. Given the “six degrees of separation” rule, that might put you only one or two degrees from someone under suspicion of terrorist activities without your even knowing about it.
And I am charmed by Ms. Mac Donald’s pure faith that the feds would never, ever use the same data mining program for any other reason. Like, maybe, to find who’s getting “action alert” phone calls from Moveon.org. Or who’s been on the phone to the Democratic National Committee. Or who Michael Moore rings up when he wants to schmooze.
Scores of righties have pointed out that marketers can obtain your calling history. I’m not happy about that, but let’s go on … for some reason, these same righties don’t make a connection to the obvious next step — why would marketers want your calling history unless they could connect you, as a potential customer, to that history?
“Can we please cut the crap?” asks Kevin Drum. “Even a child knows that phone numbers can be linked to names and addresses using ordinary commercial databases. There is absolutely nothing anonymous about this data, and only a shameless con man would try to convince us otherwise.” Or a Bush cultie.
Ron Hutcheson of Knight Ridder reminds us that the feds have a long history of abusing personal information. “From the Red Scare in the 1920s to illegal wiretaps during the Nixon era, Americans have struggled to find the right balance between individual rights and collective security,” he writes.
By the Red Scare in the 1920s, when the government made large-scale arrests of radicals and leftists in the wake of communists taking power in Russia, the bureau had assembled a rapidly expanding database of more than 150,000 names.
Abuses over the years cross party lines and political ideologies. Franklin Roosevelt wanted a file on Americans who sent him critical telegrams. Lyndon Johnson asked the FBI to get him the phone records of Republican vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy, remembered today as a champion of the underdog, approved wiretaps on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. [But see this for context.] Nearly every recent president has ordered questionable “name checks” – a search of FBI files for any damaging information – on political opponents.
During the Nixon administration, a name check on journalist Daniel Schorr backfired when the FBI misunderstood its instructions and conducted a full background investigation, including interviews with Schorr’s associates. White House officials, desperate for a cover story to explain the FBI probe, made the improbable claim that Schorr had been under consideration for a government appointment. …
… few politicians can resist the chance to gather information on their enemies, and few intelligence-gatherers can resist pressure to please the president.
The Bush Administration was caught wiretapping UN delegates for political purposes, and is under suspicion of leaking classified information to smear political enemies.
So let’s get over the fallacy that the data mining program couldn’t possibly be part of a pattern of abuses. Yes, it could.
Greg Palast writes,
[T]he snooping into your phone bill is just the snout of the pig of a strange, lucrative link-up between the Administration’s Homeland Security spy network and private companies operating beyond the reach of the laws meant to protect us from our government. You can call it the privatization of the FBI — though it is better described as the creation of a private KGB.
The leader in the field of what is called “data mining,” is a company, formed in 1997, called, “ChoicePoint, Inc,” which has sucked up over a billion dollars in national security contracts.
Worried about Dick Cheney listening in Sunday on your call to Mom? That ain’t nothing. You should be more concerned that they are linking this info to your medical records, your bill purchases and your entire personal profile including, not incidentally, your voting registration. Five years ago, I discovered that ChoicePoint had already gathered 16 billion data files on Americans — and I know they’ve expanded their ops at an explosive rate.
They are paid to keep an eye on you — because the FBI can’t. For the government to collect this stuff is against the law unless you’re suspected of a crime. (The law in question is the Constitution.) But ChoicePoint can collect if for “commercial” purchases — and under the Bush Administration’s suspect reading of the Patriot Act — our domestic spying apparatchiks can then BUY the info from ChoicePoint.
No evidence has come to light that this is happening. But,
ChoicePoint’s board has more Republicans than a Palm Beach country club. It was funded, and its board stocked, by such Republican sugar daddies as billionaires Bernie Marcus and Ken Langone — even after Langone was charged by the Securities Exchange Commission with abuse of inside information.
I first ran across these guys in 2000 in Florida when our Guardian/BBC team discovered the list of 94,000 “felons” that Katherine Harris had ordered removed from Florida’s voter rolls before the election. Virtually every voter purged was innocent of any crime except, in most cases, Voting While Black. Who came up with this electoral hit list that gave Bush the White House? ChoicePoint, Inc.
And worse, they KNEW the racially-tainted list of felons was bogus. And when we caught them, they lied about it. While they’ve since apologized to the NAACP, ChoicePoint’s ethnic cleansing of voter rolls has been amply assuaged by the man the company elected.
Back to what the NSA is up to … from an editorial in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times:
Even under the Patriot Act, there are judicially supervised rules on how investigators may use technology â€” known as “pen registers” and “trap and trace” â€” that monitor telephone traffic without actually listening in on conversations. So the legality of this program is debatable at best.
This is a critical point — there is insufficient oversight. If persons from the legislative or judicial branch with proper security clearance were allowed full access to what the NSA is up to in order to ensure the information is not being abused, the program would be less objectionable. But the bleeping Justice Department can’t even get in to the NSA.
The issue — which righties can never get through their thick heads — is not data mining or surveillance itself, but how it’s being done — in violation of law, and under a radical new theory of executive power that would make the Framers’ hair stand on end.
But what really creeped me out yesterday was the bogus poll that appeared, overnight, telling us that most Americans were just fine with the NSA data mining project. So Washington Post headlines and cable news bobbleheads like Chris Matthews assured us that most Americans supported President Bush’s program, without noting that the poll was taken awfully quickly by a long-time Republican operative named Richard Morin. Jane H. wrote yesterday,
So before the phone records story even breaks, Morin â€” who knows absolutely what he is doing â€” starts polling people who have no idea what heâ€™s talking about and giving it his best shot, tying it to the War on Terra. It works. Today itâ€™s plastered across the front page of the washingtonpost.com like Carol Dodaâ€™s bright red lightbulb tits flashing at the Condor Club. …
… just like clockwork, the chattering class picked up the ball and ran with Morinâ€™s meme. Said JWR here in the comments this morning, “Surprise! Juan Williams just cited that WaPo poll in asserting that the American people are A-Ok with illegal domestic spying.” And Howie Klein writes from the road, “Iâ€™m sitting in a hotel room in NYC and CNN has repeated those numbers every 20 minutes since I woke up. Every one of the talking heads they bring on to comment, cites it. I can only imagine what Fox must be making of it.” [emphasis added]
Strangely, a Newsweek poll taken after the data mining story became public came up with entirely different results. But it’s a Saturday, so fewer people will hear that a majority of Americans think the NSA has gone too far.
The Richard Morin poll was a slick move to both influence public opinion (most of your fellow Americans are OK with this; why not you?) and intimidate Democrats who don’t want voters to think they are soft on national security. And news media meekly went along with the scam.
Righties insist that the data mining program couldn’t possibly be intruding into the privacy of law-abiding citizens. And maybe it isn’t. But righties won’t recognize the incremental steps to tyranny until the jack boots are goose-stepping into their own neighborhoods. And that’s when it’s too late.
Billmon quotes William Arkin:
This NSA dominated program of ingestion, digestion, and distribution of intelligence raises profound questions about the privacy and civil liberties of all Americans. Though there is no evidence that the new harvesting programs have been involved in illegal activity or have been abused to reach into the lives of innocent Americans, an all-seeing domestic surveillance is slowly being established, one that in just a few years time will be able track the activities and “transactions” of any targeted individual in near real time.
Warning: Don’t read Billmon’s post unless you’re prepared to have your hair set on fire.
If we listen to the righties, we’ll trust the feds. We’ll allow them to operate without oversight. We’ll let them build a surveillance apparatus worthy of Orwell’s 1984. And we’ll be taught to approve of this in the name of liberty.
As Digby says, “It has become clear to me that we are frogs being slowly boiled to death.”