As the Shoes Drop

We return to our ongoing social science demonstration titled “How Good Democracies Go Bad.” Today we hear that the federal government is tracking phone calls from major news media — ABC News, the Washington Post, the New York Times — to discover which government employees might be talking to them. Brian Ross and Richard Esposito report for ABC News:

A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we call in an effort to root out confidential sources.

“It’s time for you to get some new cell phones, quick,” the source told us in an in-person conversation.

ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls.

Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation. …

Under Bush Administration guidelines, it is not considered illegal for the government to keep track of numbers dialed by phone customers. [Emphasis added.]

Josh Marshall asks, “Isn’t this the other shoe dropping?” But in fact, we’ve had a whole warehouse full of shoes drop already. Some people aren’t going to be concerned until the whole bleeping warehouse lands on their thick little heads.

Let’s recall some of those shoes. CNN reported on January 1:

During his re-election race in April 2004 in Buffalo, New York, Bush spoke to reporters about the USA Patriot Act and attempted to assure them the measure did not encroach on Americans’ civil liberties.

“There are such things as roving wiretaps. Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires — a wiretap requires a court order.

“Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.

“It’s important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution.”

But then we learned that maybe the President might have given the wrong impression.

President Bush on Sunday defended his administration’s use of wiretaps on U.S. citizens without a court order, saying comments he made in 2004 that “nothing has changed” in the use of wiretaps were not misleading….

…Asked what he would tell Americans worried that the practice violates their privacy rights, Bush said, “If somebody from al Qaeda is calling you, we’d like to know why.

“In the meantime, this program is conscious of people’s civil liberties, as am I. This is a limited program designed to prevent attacks on the United States of America — and I repeat: limited.”

Bush said the calls monitored are limited to those between known al Qaeda members or their affiliates outside the United States and people inside the United States.

Up until last week the Administration insisted they were not monitoring domestic calls without warrants. Dan Eggen reports for the Washington Post:

When he was asked about the National Security Agency’s controversial domestic surveillance program last Monday, U.S. intelligence chief John D. Negroponte objected to the question and said the government was “absolutely not” monitoring domestic calls without warrants.

“I wouldn’t call it domestic spying,” he told reporters. “This is about international terrorism and telephone calls between people thought to be working for international terrorism and people here in the United States.”

Three days later, USA Today divulged details of the NSA’s effort to log a majority of the telephone calls made within the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — amassing the domestic call records of tens of millions of U.S. households and businesses in an attempt to sift them for clues about terrorist threats.

Did Negroponte lie? Well, it depends on what you mean by monitoring. They’re not listening to the phone calls, see; just looking for phone calling patterns. However,

… as illustrated by Negroponte’s remarks last week, administration officials have been punctilious in discussing the NSA program over the past five months, choosing their words with care and limiting their comments to the portion of the program that had been confirmed by the president in December.

In doing so, the administration only rarely offered any hint that a much broader operation, involving millions of domestic calls, was under way. Even Sunday, after days of congressional furor and extensive media reports, administration officials declined to confirm or deny the existence of the telephone-call program, in part because of court challenges that the government is attempting to derail.

After last week’s data mining revelation, righties were quick to assure us that there was no chance we ordinary citizens are being monitored. As long as we aren’t affiliated with al Qaeda, we have nothing to worry about. According to Heather Mac Donald at The Weekly Standard, “As a practical matter, no one’s privacy is violated by such analysis. Memo to privacy nuts: The computer does not have a clue that you exist; it does not know what it is churning through; your phone number is meaningless to it.”

Now another shoe drops. Um, of course, we were only talking about the NSA program. This is a different program.

Thud, thud, thud. We’re in a pile of shoes up to our necks. Apologists for the Regime smile and tell us not to worry. As long as we’re not terrorists or potential whistleblowers or journalists (or Democrats, or anyone who has pissed off top administration officials, or … ?), we have nothing to worry about.

So when the jack boot comes down on Kool Aider‘s necks, what will they say then? “Shine, mister?”

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Or, news reporting is tricky.

One of the first and most important lessons of journalism is that hardly anything ever actually happens. It allegedly happens. Or it happens according to so-and-so. Maybe if the big event happens right in front of the reporter’s eyes it’s OK to say it happened, but to be safe the reporter should preface any observation with “this reporter observed this event,” followed by “according to so-and-so, that’s what happened.”

There are several reasons for this, but a big one is that sources often get the facts wrong themselves. Even people in a position to know stuff sometimes get the details scrambled in their own heads. If the reporter writes that thus-and-so happened and it didn’t happen, then the reporter was wrong. On the other hand, if the reporter writes that thus-and-so happened according to Whomever, and the reporter can document that Whomever really did provide that information, the mistake was Whomever’s.

It’s also standard practice to get corroboration from other sources, especially if the sources want to be off-the-record, before publishing a news story. A single source who comes forward with juicy information may be trying to manipulate some event by spreading false information. Or, the single source might just be wrong, even if he or she is in a position to know something.

Wannabe journalists who blog often skirt around these rules and proclaim something to be true and factual because his friend Joe heard it from his father-in-law. Or they’ll construct fanciful scenarios based on gossamer evidence without warning readers that the scenario is just speculation. Most professionals have had the experience of getting chewed out by an editor for screwing up, but the amateurs usually bury a mistake in a ton of verbiage and bluster and skip away. So they don’t learn from mistakes. That’s why they’re amateurs.

If you’re a regular you may have noticed that I slap generous amounts of disclaimers and caveats and “according to’s” around most of what I write here. Especially when dealing with unfolding events, a certain amount of skepticism is essential to getting at the truth

So when Jason Leopold of Truthout claimed on Saturday that Karl Rove had already been indicted, I said I was skeptical. Today some people in a position to know the facts deny there is an indictment and even that Fitzgerald met with Karl Rove’s lawyer last Friday. Jeralyn Merritt at TalkLeft has tracked down some of Jason Leopold’s sources and has confirmed that he did have sources and did not just make up the story out of thin air. However, it seems to me the sourcing was thin, even partly second-hand (the source told another reporter who passed it on to Leopold).

Thin sourcing doesn’t mean a story isn’t true. In the news biz one can’t always wait until every detail is locked down and independently verified; often, by the time you’ve accomplished that, the story is a week old and the public has lost interest. So news media often go public with sourcing that’s not as solid as they might wish. But in that case the reporter had better inject plenty of “allegedly’s” and “according to’s” and every other disclaimer in the dictionary into the published story to warn news consumers to consume with caution. And Jason Leopold didn’t do that.

I’m sorry, but this is amateur work. It may very well be that Leopold was set up, as Jeralyn suggests. But reporters get set up all the time. That’s what disclaimers are for. It may be that eventually we’ll learn Leopold’s story was correct, but that doesn’t excuse posting a story as thinly sourced as this one was without sticking some warning labels on it.

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