Wednesday, May 24, 2006

On Big Brother (better late than never)

Okay, so bless their hearts, the AJC's Woman to Woman column is frequently a couple of weeks - or months - behind on the issues. They take their first swing at domestic wiretapping this week, long after the story originally broke and in the wake of recent allegations of information sharing by phone companies (which the FCC says it can't investigate because of the classified nature of the information involved. Convenient).

But better late than never, I s'pose, and Diane and Shaunti do dive into the topic enthusiastically. And when I say "enthusiastically," I mean that Diane misses the point but manages to keep it in the ballpark, and Shaunti grabs her bat and glove and shows up at the hockey rink.
Somewhere in the world right now – even here on U.S. soil – some evil men are delighted at how quickly Americans forget hard-learned security lessons. I’m astounded that Diane thinks we are complacent about losing our privacy: I think we’re far too complacent about losing our lives.

But the important thing to remember is that it's not possible to have both. Either the President willfully violates the Constitution, or Osama bin Laden will personally kill you. There is no middle ground, so don't wander around thinking there is.
I have two words for Diane or anyone else who prefers to snipe at the NSA data-mining program for being intrusive and “unlawful” (which it isn’t), instead of being thankful that our government does try so hard to protect privacy. Two words: Zacharias Moussaoui.

And I have two words for you, Shaunti: diaphonous sushi. (What d'you mean, "relevance"?)
A few years ago, I read the fascinating 9/11 Commission Report cover to cover, and its Moussaoui discussion puts the current NSA debate squarely in perspective. In August 2001, we had captured a suspected Qaeda operative who, alarmingly, had been learning to fly (into the Capital or the White House, as we now know). We also had his captured laptop, and several weeks in which we could have tied him to the man who was planning the impending attacks, and from him to several other hijackers – exactly the sort of connect-the-dots effort intended by the NSA program. But despite urgent requests, FBI headquarters wouldn’t grant a search warrant for Moussaoui’s laptop, saying enough probable cause hadn’t been shown. In other words, saying this man’s privacy trumped national security.

Now, I could take this opportunity to point out that domestic wiretapping falls under FISA, which court has rejected all of four warrant requests since its inception nearly thirty years ago. But I'd hate to shatter Shaunti's illusions that Zack Moussaoui's Compaq was the key to preventing the 9/11 attacks, and that Bush's lil' "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States" memo would just have been a distraction from the real security issues.
A theoretical desire to protect privacy at all costs is laudable, but despite what the ACLU and Diane implies, most Americans are and should be completely unwilling to pay that “all costs” price. The NSA isn’t after the Youens of the world, who want to harm one person at a time: they are trying to stop the Moussaoui’s, who want to kill millions.

A theoretical desire to protect privacy at all costs? Is this desire truly theoretical? Or is it just that most Americans don't accept the impact of unwarranted government intrusion because, up until now, it's been secretive and impersonal? What if we did make it a little more personal for "most Americans"? Let's say the NSA has instituted a bedroom-by-bedroom search of all households in America, digging for leads on terrorist plots. When they empty your underwear drawer into a garbage bag and take it back to the office to dig for evidence, would "most Americans" think, "Oh, it's no big. I don't have anything but panties in there anyway."

Moreover, is it an efficient use of government resources to search every underwear drawer in the country for evidence, or would it be more efficient to dig through the BVDs of only those terror suspects who are suspicious enough to warrant a warrant?
The average American doesn’t want the government to miss another chance to keep us safe. Immediately after 9/11 when we understood just what we were facing, most Americans supported large increases in surveillance authority. And even in March 2006, before the media made a mountain out of this NSA molehill, an ABC poll found that 54% of Americans thought the expanded authority should continue, even if with no warrant.

The average American also believes that a bearded man sits up in the clouds and makes decisions that affect our daily lives, but the Constitution says that such beliefs don't get to directly influence the activities of our government. Once upon a time, the "average" American thought that it was okay for schoolkids to be segregated by race, as long as the schools were ostensibly "equal." I'm not saying that democracy is a wash, but people are willing to submit to a lot of things under the influence of fear that they might not be willing to accept in other circumstances. And the government has been doing a pretty good job of keeping us afraid since 9/11.
Diane, you say we just don’t care enough. No, I think we just disagree with you.

Right back atcha.

I laid down my opposition to the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program here, when it first came to light in December of last year, and again here when Alberto Gonzales was defending the program to the Senate Judiciary Committee. My arguments haven't changed much in the months since: Where is the line drawn between liberty and security? If these searches really do "satisfy the requirements of the Fourth Amendent," why not just get a warrant? Does the President really have the authority to countermand the Constitution in the interest of national security? And would people be willing to submit to random cavity searches if they knew they had nothing hidden in their rectums?

But you've read all of that already. What I want to hear is a reasonable argument in favor of the NSA's wiretapping program and the (purported) data mining of phone companies. I want to hear from people who actually support such programs, and from people who don't support them but can take a fairly decent Devil's Advocate-y swing at defending them. I'd like to know what's so important about the programs that it's acceptable to violate the Constitution, and what the NSA is doing that makes the FISA warrant process impossible.

And I'd also kind of like an answer to the rectum question. Morbid curiosity there, I guess.

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