Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Secrecy: The Soil of Tyranny

I'm still working on other stuff at the moment, which means there's precious little time for blogging. The good news, then, is that we get an extra dose of Terry McKenna, who has some detail on what's really at the root of this NSA brouhaha. I personally think he's hit on one issue that's at the very core of what is so repulsive about this Bush administration: they're the most secretive, skullduggerish lot I've ever witnessed in action, and yes, I'm counting Nixon. Mr. McKenna, then:

The overarching tyranny of the Bush administration is secrecy. I believe that if they offered the same policies, but were open and honest about them, we would be much better off. Yes, the Bush policies are terrible, but had he been honest about his aims, and quick to admit their often inevitable results, public reaction would have been swifter and surer—maybe even more positive. Of course, had Bush shown us his true intentions, the 2004 elections probably would have turned out much differently.

Let’s get to this week’s controversy. And remember, the new stories are about data mining, not wiretapping. In case you are unfamiliar with them, data mining and wiretapping are very different both in concept and in practice.

Wiretapping is just straightforward listening. The government intercepts the phone line at a convenient junction, or places a listening device in a phone itself, and just listens.

Data mining is a process where data is gone over for patterns. In the current instance, the government has a nearly complete list of all US telephone calls – just the phone numbers, dates and times. Then the Feds run a series of pattern recognition queries against the database. My guess is that first they look for calls to and from certain numbers (like known associates of the terrorists). Then they might look for the numbers that call these numbers. By trying out a series of guesses, the Feds should then have a list of possible internal suspects. They can do the same with e-mail traffic. And remember, the feds just have the phone numbers, not the calls themselves.

In any case the President tried to take the heat off the data mining controversy by a series of evasive speeches. And as usual, he mixed lies and evasions. Here’s what he said in this week’s radio address:

“The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval. We are not trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.”

Notice that he was talking about listening to calls (wiretapping) but avoided discussing data mining. So he denied something that he is not being accused of (at least for now). So we can be sure that he IS data mining, and with calls made in the US.

For myself, although I don’t trust the current government, I can envision an instance where data mining might be reasonable – especially in a digital age, where an awful lot of harm can be started just via the telephone (and by cell phones that are hard to trace). I’ve made an informal survey of my younger colleagues (all employed in business, all college grads - all easterners, so presumably more liberal than the general population). All suggested that data mining might be ok – as long as there was responsible oversight outside of the administration.

So the president could have silenced many critics if he said something like this:

“Yes, we have been data mining. We believe that it is the only way to trace the activities of the terrorists. We also believe that, as president, I have the authority to order such data mining without a court order. But in order to demonstrate good faith, we will turn over the records of the data mining, and the internal legal opinions supporting our actions, to the appropriate congressional committee for review in secret session.”

Sadly, this president doesn’t know how to level with us.

Speaking personally. I don’t know the laws regarding invasions of privacy – but I can accept that a lot of things may be necessary to prevent attacks from our enemies. And the September 11 tragedy suggests that we face new threats that are not caught in the usual satellite nets that track larger forces like the movements of fleets or the flights of intercontinental ballistic missiles. But if the government wants to protect us, at very least, it has to allow the oversight that was granted to the Congress in our Constitution.

Defenders of the President often point out the Abraham Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus during the civil war. And this is true. But he also faced congressional oversight. And even review by the Supreme Court.

The problem is with secrecy.

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