Archive for January 21, 2006
The Politics of Domestic Spying
The Daily Iowan
by Nicholas Johnson (used with permission)
Nicholas Johnson, who held three presidential appointments in the federal government during the 1960s and 1970s, now teaches communications law at the UI College of Law and maintains nicholasjohnson.org.
President Bush's authorization of NSA spying on American citizens raises issues more deserving of books than a column. Topping the list are potential political abuses that would make President Richard Nixon's bungled burglary of the Democratic Party's Watergate offices look like a kindergarten prank.
Other issues abound.
Why not monitor everything? It's tough to get search warrants if you don't know whom, what, or where you want to search.
But does it work? Is it cost effective?
How many freedoms are we willing to sacrifice in the name of “protecting our freedoms”?
Does spying violate Fourth Amendment protection from “unreasonable” searches?
Does it taint the FISA court's process?
Was Congress adequately briefed? Did the president violate the law?
Even if the president's actions are an unconstitutional, impeachable offense, does that justify news stories that threaten national security? Who leaked his secret decision, anyway?
But, let's focus on the possible political abuses. It's no longer enough to say, “Why should I care about spying, if I'm doing nothing wrong?”
The secret NSA, once said to stand for “No Such Agency,” is the National Security Agency. Larger than the CIA, its surveillance technology is unrivaled. Its encryption crackers include the world's largest collection of mathematicians.
Experts on a CBS “60 Minutes” segment described how the NSA's global fish net, Echelon, covers all of Planet Earth, monitoring airwaves and optic fiber, picking up everything from e-mail and faxes to cell phones and baby monitors. Of course, even the NSA's staff isn't large enough to sort through overwhelming flows of data. So, it uses the world's largest supercomputers to pluck from that haystack the needles of programmed patterns, names, voices, key words, or phone numbers.
Originally focused overseas, Bush's secret order permitted the NSA to spy on Americans. Are your communications being spied on? Well, yes and no. Your communications are probably captured and analyzed. But the odds are they're not being spotlighted.
Why worry about potential political abuses? Because they've already occurred. Nixon's impeachment included old-fashioned wiretapping for political advantage. The “60 Minutes” Echelon experts revealed:
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used the technology to spy on her Cabinet — with deniability. Canadians did it for her.
Europeans documented concerns our government passed information to Boeing that caused Airbus to lose airplane sales to <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 />Saudi Arabia.
Princess Diana's affairs suddenly reached the British tabloids after the NSA started monitoring her opposition to our land mines.
A former NSA employee admitted listening to Sen. Strom Thurmond's phone calls.
NSA abuses led to the Church Committee's 1970s investigations and laws prohibiting domestic spying. NSA's Office of Security Services tracked 75,000 Americans between 1952 and 1974. During the 1960s, its project “Shamrock” examined Americans' telegrams. There was a “watch list” of Vietnam War opponents.
Today, the NSA examines billions of items. Similar “data mining” was proposed for the “Total Information Awareness” project.
If the technology is used to track drug dealers as well as terrorists, if it can help American corporations gain advantage over foreign competitors, imagine what it could do in a political campaign. If such abuses have already occurred in the past, how realistic is it to think they're not going on now?
“Trust but verify?” How would we even know if abuses occurred during our congressional and presidential elections? The NSA is, after all, an agency with virtually no transparency and oversight that secretly reports to the Commander in Chief.
In 1949, George Orwell warned us of trends he saw unfolding by 1984 – his book's title. Now, 22 years later, the NSA's technology is more powerfully intrusive than even he imagined. The slogan of Orwell's fictional government, “Big Brother is watching you,” is fiction no more.
<?xml:namespace prefix = o /> What of his main character's ultimate realization that “he loved Big Brother?” Still fiction? Or have Americans already come to accept, if not love, the NSA's “protecting us from terrorism?” Have you?