Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Snoopgate: Onwards and Upwards

That title is stolen from something in gardening literature. I'm scraping the bottom of my quote barrel; soon I need to take a break from writing and go on a reading spree.

I wish our politicians could take a break, too, like a few centuries. That would let this country rest and heal a little. But it ain't gonna happen. Instead we still have the Snoopgate which has been channeled and converted into another "Either you are with the President or you are a terrorist" story by the wingnut pundits. I have never seen so much purposeful obfuscation by this lot: the real problem, just to remind them, is that the president probably broke the law, not that the NSA spied on terrorists, but that we have no idea who the NSA spied on and whether they are terrorists at all. All because the law was ignored.

This gives the president fairly absolute powers. I would think the wingnuts would find that scary, too. Remember a guy called Bill Clinton? Didn't he use to president this country? Someone like that could be in the power again, and Bush is making it easy for him (or her...) to rule the country as a dictator.

That the wingnuts don't seem to worry about this makes me worried about what else they are cooking. But time to take my tinfoil helmet (with horns) off and to talk about the Snoopgate a little bit more seriously.

Lowell Bergman and others write in a New York Times article that the FBI grew frustrated with the wholesale spying operations of the NSA:

In the anxious months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Security Agency began sending a steady stream of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and names to the F.B.I. in search of terrorists. The stream soon became a flood, requiring hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips a month.

But virtually all of them, current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans.

F.B.I. officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators. The spy agency was collecting much of the data by eavesdropping on some Americans' international communications and conducting computer searches of phone and Internet traffic. Some F.B.I. officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans' privacy.

As the bureau was running down those leads, its director, Robert S. Mueller III, raised concerns about the legal rationale for a program of eavesdropping without warrants, one government official said. Mr. Mueller asked senior administration officials about "whether the program had a proper legal foundation," but deferred to Justice Department legal opinions, the official said.

President Bush has characterized the eavesdropping program as a "vital tool" against terrorism; Vice President Dick Cheney has said it has saved "thousands of lives."

The article goes on to mention that Cheney's argument about saving "thousands of lives" may not hold. The man who planned to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge by blowtorching it, for example, was caught in this net, but he was already known to authorities. And I can't stop imagining him standing there, blowtorching, day after day, year after year, and nobody stopping to ask what he was doing. But perhaps the vacuuming of information did prevent something horrible from happening. That is the wingnut argument, at least. So would insisting that everybody stays at home after working hours, but I don't see the same argument being used to defend such a policy, not yet at least.

The ACLU is suing the administration for snooping on purported innocents, reports Claudia Parsons for Reuters:

Two U.S. civil liberties groups filed lawsuits on Tuesday challenging the legality of President George W. Bush's domestic eavesdropping program and demanding the practice be ended immediately.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan defended Bush's authorization of domestic eavesdropping as legal, saying it was aimed at detecting and preventing attacks by al Qaeda.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the National Security Agency on behalf of scholars, attorneys, journalists and nonprofit groups that regularly communicate by telephone and e-mail with people in the Middle East. The Council on American-Islamic Relations joined the lawsuit.

The suit filed in U.S. district court for eastern Michigan also names NSA Director Army Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander as a defendant. It seeks a court order declaring the spying program is illegal and ordering its immediate and permanent halt.

Separately, the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has provided legal aid to people detained or interrogated in Washington's declared war on terrorism, said it had filed a suit in a federal court in New York.

That suit, naming Bush and the heads of security agencies, challenges the eavesdropping program and seeks an end to it.

One of the journalists in the ACLU suit is Christopher Hitchens. Yes, the same Hitchens who has walked over to the side of darkness. But he likes the occasional flashlight:

Although I am named in this suit in my own behalf, I am motivated to join it by concerns well beyond my own. I have been frankly appalled by the discrepant and contradictory positions taken by the Administration in this matter. First, the entire existence of the NSA's monitoring was a secret, and its very disclosure denounced as a threat to national security.

Then it was argued that Congress had already implicitly granted the power to conduct warrantless surveillance on the territory of the United States, which seemed to make the reason for the original secrecy more rather than less mysterious. (I think we may take it for granted that our deadly enemies understand that their communications may be intercepted.)

It now appears that Congress may have granted this authority, but without quite knowing that it had, and certainly without knowing the extent of it.

This makes it critically important that we establish an understood line, and test the cases in which it may or may not be crossed.

Let me give a very direct instance of what I mean. We have recently learned that the NSA used law enforcement agencies to track members of a pacifist organisation in Baltimore. This is, first of all, an appalling abuse of state power and an unjustified invasion of privacy, uncovered by any definition of "national security" however expansive. It is, no less importantly, a stupid diversion of scarce resources from the real target. It is a certainty that if all the facts were known we would become aware of many more such cases of misconduct and waste.

The wider issue in all this has to do with presidential powers and the threat to the checks and balances between the different branches of the government. Does George stand above the law? Does that keep us safe? From what? And at what cost? But that is a different post.