Mining Their Own Business

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Yesterday, in response to USA Today's story about the NSA's phone record collection, President Bush said: "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates."

Depending on how one defines mining, trolling, and personal lives, that may or may not be true. By USA Today's account, the NSA "is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity," which sounds like what is usually described as "data mining," a la John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness project. But at the very least Bush seems to be promising that the government isn't using the database to track phone calls to pot dealers, bookies, or call girl services. Even if he doesn't consider people who make such calls "innocent Americans," the terrorist nexus would be hard to show.

Yet USA Today reported that "NSA told Qwest that other government agencies, including the FBI, CIA and DEA, also might have access to the database." Bush's assurance could be reconciled with the paper's account if the database is currently being used to track terrorists but might at some point be used for other purposes. Likewise, Bush may have been completely truthful in saying "the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval." But given his justification for the NSA's warrantless surveillance of international communications involving people on U.S. soil, that could change any day. Last month, when asked if the president has the power to authorize warrantless surveillance of purely domestic calls and e-mail messages, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said, "I'm not going to rule it out."

So one problem with polls indicating that most Americans are perfectly OK with all this is that they should be asking not only how people feel about what the adminstration has done so far (or what it is has admitted to doing so far) but how they feel about what it or future administrations could do based on Bush's sweeping assertion of unchecked executive power. If the government had sought court approval or statutory authority for the sort of (presumably automated) data analysis the NSA is doing, it would not be such a big deal. If the executive branch could be trusted to use the data only for the limited purposes suggested by Bush's comments, it would not be such a big deal. But since neither is the case, it is a big deal.

I'd like to see a poll that asks, "Do you think the president should have the power to do whatever he wants to fight terrorism, no matter what Congress or the courts say?" Or maybe I wouldn't. I'm a little worried about what the answer would be.

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  1. Trust me, you wouldn’t.

  2. Under the shade of the Chestnut tree,
    I sold you and you sold me…

  3. I’ve been noticing a palpable silence among members of whole the “Gore/Kerry would have been worse” front lately. Why is that?

  4. I swear to Zeus the Thunderer that I’ll vote for anyone who just says the words, “limited government”. Just the words.

  5. I don’t see what the big deal is. I called the NSA of my own free will and volunteered to let them track my phone calls. It gives me a sense of comfort.

  6. Budgie: That’s because the “Gore/Kerry’s Worse” people talk about this on thier phones, then the Administration arrests them and puts them in the secret prisons in Europe.

    Really! I seen it!

    Seriously though, the Right Wing blogospere wouldn’t let Gore/Kerry get away this sort of thing, so it would be better to have them.

  7. The person former known as Taktix didn’t actually exist. The post above are just figments of your complacent imagination.

  8. I don’t know if Gore or Kerry would have been worse. But it’s far from clear that they’d have been better. Remember who came up with the Clipper Chip and Carnivore.

  9. I’m trying to recall what Kerry has done in the last 2 years as Senator to reverse this trend.

    Oh, right.

    It’s too bad Kerry lost his fire to accomplish anything at all since losing the election. Not that I’d have minded a “do-nothing” president, but that appears exactly what he’d have been.

  10. Kerry probably would’ve been like Clinton/Gore: “Must look tough. Must allow law enforcement bureaucrats do anything they want. Must stay in power.”

    Oppression is always okay, so long as it’s my party doing the oppressing.

  11. “We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates.”

    The words in bold could be any one of us, right? I guess they already know we’re all guilty and their trying to turn America into a prison by building walls around it.

    I’m surprised Kerry hasn’t suicided yet. I wonder what his reason for existing is now. Gore/Kerry, Kerry/Gore in ’08? Together they can save us from Manbearpig.

  12. M’, do you think this NSA stuff is a joke? I’m totally serial! Why won’t anyone take me serial!

  13. Of course Kerry would have been worse – he certainly wouldn’t have cut taxes like Bush and really, that’s the only thing Bush has done that has had any discernable impact on my, you know, life.

  14. Does anyone remember the conservative furor over the FBI’s Carnivore program and how the government was violating the privacy of Americans by searching their electronic communications?

    Oh wait… that was when Bill Clinton was president. NOW that we have a Republican in office it’s A-OK. I guess 9-11 really did change everything… for the worse.

  15. I’d like to see a poll that asks, “Do you think the president should have the power to do whatever he wants to fight terrorism, no matter what Congress or the courts say?” Or maybe I wouldn’t. I’m a little worried about what the answer would be.

    If you’re in the majority then you have nothing to fear…

    …until the majority purges the minority, and then a majority of those who remain decide to purge a minority of those who remain, and then the majority of those who still remain do another purge, and so forth.

    Bottom line: If the Stasi reconstituted itself under the name of “The Agency to Defend Freedom Against Terrorism”, they’d probably be welcomed with open arms by most Americans.

  16. We can only be saved by covering America in molten lead!

  17. But at the very least Bush seems to be promising that the government isn’t using the database to track phone calls to pot dealers, bookies, or call girl services. Even if he doesn’t consider people who make such calls “innocent Americans,” the terrorist nexus would be hard to show.

    Remember the “buy drugs-fund terrorism” ads? And google “Mata Hari.”

  18. Remember the “buy drugs-fund terrorism” ads?

    Boy, do I, but they never mentioned “buy gas-fund terrorism” though. For shame.

  19. Bottom line: If the Stasi reconstituted itself under the name of “The Agency to Defend Freedom Against Terrorism”, they’d probably be welcomed with open arms by most Americans.

    Actually thoreau, we’re going to be called the “Stateside Terrorism Agency of Special Investigations” and we’ve been meaning to talk to you about some of your recent phone calls…

  20. You know, I’m travelling tomorrow and I especially like the $10 “US 911 Security Fee” on my reservation.

  21. I’m really hoping that I can get a hold of my own call records. There is this girl’s number I lost and I’d really like to get it again.

    Those NSA people aren’t particularly helpful, nor all that nice for that matter either.

    C’mon! Help a brother out!

  22. Jacob:
    If the executive branch could be trusted to use the data only for the limited purposes suggested by Bush’s comments…But since (that’s not) the case…

    That’s for sure. The Patriot Act has certainly been utilized outside of its advertised purview. Even if we’re currently in the minority in this matter (as the polls would indicate), we need to raise a strong protest.
    http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/

    BTW, every time I write “Patriot Act”, I feel like I’m a government dupe. That name is Orwellian propaganda in action. The founders of our republic would be horrified.

  23. I think “1984” is more of a how-to manual to the fedral government than a cautionary tale.

    We could rename it “Statism for Dummies” or something.

  24. OK, who’s up for a little gathering on November 5?

  25. Rick, I recommend eschewing “Patriot Act” and using the full name instead: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.”

    I understand that it was originally going to be called the Focusing on Undermining Chicanery and Knavery without Yielding Our Ultimacy while Uniting and Strengthening America Act of 2001.

  26. I’d like to see a poll that asks, “Do you think the president should have the power to do whatever he wants to fight terrorism, no matter what Congress or the courts say?” Or maybe I wouldn’t. I’m a little worried about what the answer would be.

    I’ve been doing a bit of conservative reading, dontcha’ know, the usual suspects like NRO, but I’ve been reading Townhall.com a bit too.

    What do you know, I’m guessing 99% if their readers would want the pres to do whatever he wants. And most of the columnists too.

    Well, apparently almost of all of them.

  27. budgie:

    I’ve been noticing a palpable silence among members of whole the “Gore/Kerry would have been worse” front lately. Why is that?

    Cuz on so many fronts, Bush is so bad as to make those two idiots look unhorrible. When he beat Gore, I was glad (although I voted for the Libertarian candidate). I didn’t anticipate that Bush would expand government like a drunken Democrat, or that he’d use 9/11 as a pretext to do the bidding of the Israeli government and its neocon supporters. Or that he’d use 9/11 as an excuse for an assault on our civil liberties.

    I now wish Gore, along with the GOP in congress, would have been victorious in 2000.

  28. …BTW, it doesn’t follow that it’s a good idea to elect the Dems to control of congress. But that’s for a different thread…

  29. Pro Libertate at 4:26 PM,

    Good one!

  30. Well – I just read a disheartening story..not sure if this is just another “Whitehouse Friendly” newspaper/reporter or a sad postscript about our current American society?

    Most Put Security Ahead of Privacy

  31. Rick, it was surprisingly easy to fit words to my “act”–maybe I have a future as a Congressional staffer. Wish they’d used my name for the act–it would’ve clarified the terms of the debate a bit more.

    Anyway, it looks like you were the only person who got the joke 🙁

  32. I think “1984” is more of a how-to manual to the fedral government than a cautionary tale.

    Let’s just be glad they haven’t read “The Prince”… Oh wait

  33. Warren-

    Machiavelli is at least credited with urging a brutal but competent approach to governing. The current regime, however, takes a brutal and incompetent approach to governing.

  34. I have fallen into this “But if they think that we think that they thought that we thought that they thought that…..”

    I recall seeing something recently (sorry- can’t remember where) that said the TIA is not dead, but is resting comfortably under an assumed name, deep in the bowels of the Dept of Insidious Snoopery. What if this wiretap thing is the red cape which is diverting our attention from their real goal which is to….

    Grrrrrlgh!

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