Thursday, May 11, 2006


Data Mined

Thumbing through the usual right-wing media sources as they desperately vow that this, too, is absolutely no big deal and in fact entirely reasonable, I was struck by just how assured they were that massive data mining of the telephone calls of all American citizens was a perfectly normal thing to expect, just like government demands to turn over large numbers of Google searches, or government notions that if an American was accused of consorting with terrorists, the Constitutional protections of representation and evidence no longer applied.

We seem to have had four distinct periods to this domestic espionage story:

1) We first were told the U.S. government was spying on al Qaeda. Well, duh. I would hope so. (As far as I'm concerned, the NSA should break into every al Qaeda call with little farting sounds, just to see if we can get them into slapfights with each other. I'd like to hear fake-Osama singing the Monty Python "Spam" song.) This, everyone agreed, was no big deal. Nobody gives two bits: it requires a FISA warrant, and those warrants can even be granted after the fact, and those warrants are in fact always granted, and there is no controversy about it. It is not only necessary for the war on actual terrorists, but is a microscopically limited program.

2) But we then learned that it wasn't al Qaeda, it was "international communications" in general: telephone conversations that began and ended at two foreign points. Using data mining, not just the calls of the suspected terror-connected were being intercepted, but the calls between individuals with no known connections with terrorism, in an effort to look for patterns and words ostensibly indicative of terrorism. And, we were assured, this was no big deal, because FISA law is too cumbersome to be followed when you are talking about intercepting tens of thousands of calls on a giant, worldwide fishing expedition, and after all, the president assured us, they were not spying on Americans, only foreigners. And Constitutional rights do not apply to those foreign types, although some people questioned whether or not such a buckshot approach was causing so many false positives as to be hindering law enforcement efforts. But, after all, this is necessary for the war against supporters of known terrorists, and it is a very limited program. Don't presume this to be a big deal.

3) Then we learned that it wasn't exactly just all phone calls between international sources, but calls beginning or ending in the United States, too. Though in direct conflict to previous assertions, this, we were told, was also just fine; we were told that the only people who had anything to fear were the terrorists. We wouldn't dare conduct searches of the records of U.S. citizens that had nothing to do with terrorism: only the guilty were being spied on. It is necessary for the war on people who might be acquainted with the supporters of possible terrorists, and it is a limited and quite sensitively conducted program. Don't be paranoid, the rest of you aren't being affected.

4) Then we learned that it isn't about foreign vs. international calls at all. It's all calls. Your calls, my calls, the calls of politicians, of reporters, of government officials, by the tens of millions. Purely between Americans. They're all stored by a government agency in an ostensible attempt to "data mine" that information for, it is said again, potential ties between you and the terrorists. But don't worry, the president tells us, the government would never misuse the data files they've collected on tens of millions of Americans. Don't be silly.

This frog seems fairly well boiled, at this point, doesn't it?

So here's a question for the community. And am I right in assuming that, if we looked, we could find administration officials and right-wing pundits vowing up and down at each stage that the next stage was a complete impossibility, a mere fabrication of paranoid minds?

And what will be the next revelation that we're told, by the _exact same government sources and partisan hacks that assured us none of what we now know to be happening was happening? That the White House or other government agencies, say, have been sporadically requesting call data for specific individuals? Say, Christianne Amanpour?

Richard Clarke?

Dana Priest?

Of course not. Don't be silly. This is a very limited program.

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