2006/05/14

The latest warrantless NSA spying scandal

Someone in our email group sent along an appeal from Act For Change to protest the latest warrantless NSA spyng scandal. In response, someone sent us the following message:

My first reaction to this is that the phone companies were complying with a government request after 9/11 and should not be held accountable for complying with that request.
There has to be a balance between what we want our government to do to protect us from terrrorist [sic] attacks and protecting our right to privacy.

Heartily agreeing with the claim that there "has to be a balance", I nevertheless disagreed with holding the telecommuncations companies blameless:

One major telecommunications company declined to participate in the program: Qwest.

According to sources familiar with the events, Qwest's CEO at the time, Joe Nacchio, was deeply troubled by the NSA's assertion that Qwest didn't need a court order — or approval under FISA — to proceed. Adding to the tension, Qwest was unclear about who, exactly, would have access to its customers' information and how that information might be used.

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Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was proposing, Qwest's lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA court. According to the sources, the agency refused.

The NSA's explanation did little to satisfy Qwest's lawyers. "They told (Qwest) they didn't want to do that because FISA might not agree with them,"

The NSA obviously did not feel confident that its request was legal. Despite a poll taken long before American citizens could get a handle on what the issue was all about, a later poll showed Americans were quite upset over the decision and legal action could be very, very costly for the telecommunications companies, not that Constitutional rights should be dependent on polls in any event.

As to the idea of balance, our objector agreed with me in a later message that the Bush Administration had not engaged in any such thing. Major problem with the idea of balance is that the Administration never, at any point, sought any input from anyone outside their own little, tight circle of cronies and ideological soulmates. It's also become quite clear that there are simply no legal restraints on the program.

Worried about Dick Cheney listening in Sunday on your call to Mom? That ain't nothing. You should be more concerned that they are linking this info to your medical records, your bill purchases and your entire personal profile including, not incidentally, your voting registration. Five years ago, I discovered that ChoicePoint had already gathered 16 billion data files on Americans -- and I know they've expanded their ops at an explosive rate.

And no, the assertions that the government does not know your name, only your phone number and the calls you've made, was quickly scotched in the USA Today article:

With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans. Customers' names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over as part of NSA's domestic program, the sources said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information. [emphasis added]

The fact that the telecommunications companies did not turn over specific identifying information to the government means nothing. The government can easily get that information anyway. And make no mistake, Congress very clearly came out against the very similar Total Information Awareness program back in 2003. Hopefully, the whole issue will blow General Hayden's nomination to run the CIA completely out of the water, but ya never know.


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