Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Tap dancing at the NSA

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Apologies for the NSA's telecom data mining scam have quickly developed along two lines: (a) phone records are routinely summoned without warrants in criminal investigations. No big deal (b) If 'network analysis' confers great snooping powers as suggested, then it must also have significant potential for detecting terrorist activity. You can't have it both ways.

Ironically, the problem isn't too much information but too little. If the government had to ask for records on a case by case basis, its search habits would be revealed ...more »to some outside agency (the telecoms). That isn't much of a check, but word could leak out in case of large scale abuse. There would also be some kind of paper trail of search requests, I presume – relevant in case of an investigation into allegations of abuse. The problem with the program isn't so much that it disrobes the citizen as it cloaks government. Having the whole data base at the fingertips of the security bureaucracy practically eliminates any possibility of counter surveillance, by eliminating intermediaries and potential witnesses. You will never know what they're monitoring – from Sy Hersh's phone records to who's buying dildos in Alabama. Yet another chapter in the Bush administration's obsession with secrecy.

There is an aspect to the whole thing which goes beyond legalities or practicalities, i.e. tangible concerns relating to either security or civil liberties. A free society places the onus on government to justify every extension of its intrusive powers. It is not incumbent on the citizen to present a watertight case why they should be curbed. The ease of obtaining phone records in targeted individual cases is not an argument for the program but against it. Why the extra wattage, if it's so easy to follow up on identified suspects? There is good reason to worry especially if this was a senseless accumulation of junk information. The often irrational fetishizing of knowledge and control is the hallmark of bureaucratic megalomania on which a police state is founded. It seems Bush has leveraged September 11 to infuse a radically new character into American government, one which is antithetical to its founding spirit.

Above all else, it's the aesthetics, stupid.

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