26 Dec 2005

What If They Gave a Scandal and Nobody Came?

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What if they gave a scandal and nobody came? asks one of Roger L. Simon’s commenters.

Posted by: chuck at December 24, 2005 05:07 PM


The New York Times’ James Bamford cheerfully tells us all about “the most secret operation in the entire intelligence network, complete with its own code word – which itself is secret,” and in the omniscient manner of journalists everywhere proceeds to evaluate the ultra-secret NSA’s current operations as “struggling to adjust to the war on terror.”

Jokingly referred to as “No Such Agency,” the N.S.A. was created in absolute secrecy in 1952 by President Harry S. Truman. Today, it is the largest intelligence agency. It is also the most important, providing far more insight on foreign countries than the C.I.A. and other spy organizations.

But the agency is still struggling to adjust to the war on terror, in which its job is not to monitor states, but individuals or small cells hidden all over the world. To accomplish this, the N.S.A. has developed ever more sophisticated technology that mines vast amounts of data. But this technology may be of limited use abroad. And at home, it increases pressure on the agency to bypass civil liberties and skirt formal legal channels of criminal investigation. Originally created to spy on foreign adversaries, the N.S.A. was never supposed to be turned inward.

Bamford naturally understands NSA’s mission better than its own leadership, or that of the elected administration. And he understands better too the limitations of data mining:

Today, instead of eavesdropping on an enormous country that was always chattering and never moved, the N.S.A. is trying to find small numbers of individuals who operate in closed cells, seldom communicate electronically (and when they do, use untraceable calling cards or disposable cellphones) and are constantly traveling from country to country… “Know how many international calls are made out of Afghanistan on a given day? Thousands.”

Ignoring these insurmountable obstacles, Bamford scolds, the Bush Administration heedlessly proceeded to engage in automated data-mining, which he refers to as “eavesdropping.” Impersonal and automated monitoring of international communications searching for keywords, he thinks, should be out-of-bounds. US intelligence and defense agencies should be forced to investigate only on an individual basis, filling out the proper pile of paper work, and going to court, presenting a case, and obtaining an individual warrant. Such practices push the boundaries of the law, and might lead to tyranny.


The Washington Post’s Susan Spaulding editorializes indignantly that the Bush Administration went right ahead, and covertly conducted an impersonal and automated search for potential terrorist communications in such secrecy “that Congress was [only] briefed ‘at least a dozen times’ in the four years since the wiretap program started.”

Presumably, the president should have funded an international advertising campaign to notify everyone what he was plannng to do, then conducted a full-scale national political debate before proceeding with a secret intelligence operation in time of war:

Even assuming that these classified briefings accurately conveyed all relevant facts, it appears that they were limited to only eight of the 535 senators and representatives, under a process that effectively eliminates the possibility of any careful oversight.

In U.S. News & World Report, David E. Kaplan shrieks:

EXCLUSIVE: Nuclear Monitoring of Muslims Done Without Search Warrants

In search of a terrorist nuclear bomb, the federal government since 9/11 has run a far-reaching, top secret program to monitor radiation levels at over a hundred Muslim sites in the Washington, D.C., area, including mosques, homes, businesses, and warehouses, plus similar sites in at least five other cities, U.S. News has learned. In numerous cases, the monitoring required investigators to go on to the property under surveillance, although no search warrants or court orders were ever obtained, according to those with knowledge of the program. Some participants were threatened with loss of their jobs when they questioned the legality of the operation, according to these accounts.

Federal officials familiar with the program maintain that warrants are unneeded for the kind of radiation sampling the operation entails, but some legal scholars disagree.

The more sensible Mickey Kaus notes ruefully:

Another spy scandal and Bush will be at 60%.


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