Friday, December 16, 2005

The 1984-ing of America

Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts is a very misleading headline. It gives the impression that U.S. intelligence agencies are listening in on every phone call you make, that they're recording your conversation asking your spouse to pick up some milk on the way home from work.

In fact, this piece in The New York Times reports that:

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.

This report will surely drive civil liberties organizations such as the ACLU bonkers. Expect a law suit any minute now.

But before the rational among us are swayed by the overzealous, let's look at the facts as reported by the NYT.

The numbers:

While many details about the program remain secret, officials familiar with it say the N.S.A. eavesdrops without warrants on up to 500 people in the United States at any given time. The list changes as some names are added and others dropped, so the number monitored in this country may have reached into the thousands since the program began, several officials said. Overseas, about 5,000 to 7,000 people suspected of terrorist ties are monitored at one time, according to those officials.

I don't know about you, but I feel safer knowing that the U.S. government is monitoring leads on potential terrorists both at home and abroad. But if that bothers you, how about this:

Several officials said the eavesdropping program had helped uncover a plot by Iyman Faris, an Ohio trucker and naturalized citizen who pleaded guilty in 2003 to supporting Al Qaeda by planning to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with blowtorches. What appeared to be another Qaeda plot, involving fertilizer bomb attacks on British pubs and train stations, was exposed last year in part through the program, the officials said. But they said most people targeted for N.S.A. monitoring have never been charged with a crime, including an Iranian-American doctor in the South who came under suspicion because of what one official described as dubious ties to Osama bin Laden.

So the leads gathered by the N.S.A.'s activities have actually prevented terrorist attacks in U.S. How did this all begin?:

What the agency calls a "special collection program" began soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, as it looked for new tools to attack terrorism. The program accelerated in early 2002 after the Central Intelligence Agency started capturing top Qaeda operatives overseas, including Abu Zubaydah, who was arrested in Pakistan in March 2002. The C.I.A. seized the terrorists' computers, cellphones and personal phone directories, said the officials familiar with the program. The N.S.A. surveillance was intended to exploit those numbers and addresses as quickly as possible, they said.

In addition to eavesdropping on those numbers and reading e-mail messages to and from the Qaeda figures, the N.S.A. began monitoring others linked to them, creating an expanding chain. While most of the numbers and addresses were overseas, hundreds were in the United States, the officials said.

So the N.S.A. actually decided that it was acceptable to look into people that were tied, even indirectly, to al Qaeda operatives captured by the C.I.A.? How dare they! More:

Since 2002, the agency has been conducting some warrantless eavesdropping on people in the United States who are linked, even if indirectly, to suspected terrorists through the chain of phone numbers and e-mail addresses, according to several officials who know of the operation. Under the special program, the agency monitors their international communications, the officials said. The agency, for example, can target phone calls from someone in New York to someone in Afghanistan.

The report goes on to explain that a warrant is necessary to monitor a phone call from someone in New York to, say, someone in California.

So it seems the N.S.A. took action after 9/11 that preemtively searched for terrorists before they decided to fly airplanes into builds...again. The NYT report even acknowledges criticism of the N.S.A. from the 9/11 Commission (the liberal gold stamp, by way) of the agency prior to 9/11:

After the Sept. 11 attacks, though, the United States intelligence community was criticized for being too risk-averse. The National Security Agency was even cited by the independent 9/11 Commission for adhering to self-imposed rules that were stricter than those set by federal law.

"Damned if you do, and damned if you don't" seems to fit this situation well. Intelligence agencies, the C.I.A. in particular, have come under fire post 9/11 for not being able to prevent the most devastating attack on U.S. soil. But at the same time, an intelligence agency takes action, which as far as I can tell adheres to U.S. law, albeit very closely, to protect U.S. citizens from terrorism and it is painted as a violator of civil liberties. Does this make any sense?

Much like the debate over coercive interrogation, this report is sure to raise the fundamental question of how far the U.S. government is allowed to go to protect our way of life. And should the Bush administration really be demonized for doing what it deemed necessary after 9/11 to protect the American people?

After reading this report from the NYT, I believe that the actions taken were absolutely justified. Despite the facts, I am sure that this will not stop the rabid left from portraying this as yet another "example" of the 1984-ing of America by the Bush administration.

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