Friday, May 12, 2006

NSA Phone Call Monitoring: The Bigger Picture

Extent of Administration's Domestic Surveillance Decried in Both Parties

Washington Post
Friday, May 12, 2006; Page A01

The Bush administration has secretly been collecting the domestic telephone records of millions of U.S. households and businesses, assembling gargantuan databases and attempting to sift through them for clues about terrorist threats, according to sources with knowledge of the program.

The "call detail records" enable U.S. intelligence agencies to track who calls whom, and when, but do not include the contents of conversations, the sources said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the program. The companies cooperating with the National Security Agency dominate the U.S. telecommunications market and connect hundreds of billions of telephone calls each year. Intelligence analysts are seeking to mine their records to expose hidden connections and details of social networks, hoping to find signs of terrorist plots in the vast sea of innocent contacts.

Fresh disclosures yesterday in USA Today about the scale of domestic surveillance -- the most extensive yet known involving ordinary citizens and residents -- touched off a bipartisan uproar against a politically weakened President Bush. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) vowed to haul telephone companies before his committee under oath to ferret out details the Bush administration refuses to supply, and more than 50 House Democrats signed a letter demanding a criminal investigation by a special counsel.


One odd thing about this story is that its less than fresh. The Electronic Freedom Foundation filed a class action lawsuit against AT&T for complying January of this year. Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly's blog the Political Animal covered this on April 8th something he pointed out yesterday when USA Today "broke the story". Odds are USA Today would have sat on the story save for the fact that the head of the NSA is now poised to become the head of the CIA.

However the outcry on this has been huge. Because when you add the governments seizure of web search records,the NSA's warrantless wiretapping of calls, and the Patriot Act together they send up red flags that cry Police State! Police State! However that is not exactly an accurate portrayal of the issue. The issue here is the same issue that's at the legal heart of the continuing abortion debate ie the "Right to Privacy".

And we have two camps on that issue those that subscribe to the theory that the constitution is written in stone (Most notably Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia) and therefore doesn't believe that such a right exists and those that believe the constitution is a living breathing document in which the Founding Father's original intent must be served that believes such a right does exist. W falls into the first camp by the way.

Frankly I think we need a constitutional amendment defining our right to privacy so that both camps can shut up and move on.

The fact of the matter is that the phone companies gave the NSA their data about your phone calls voluntarily (except Quest who pulled a Google). That information is legally theirs. And I'm fairly certain the government didn't do anything illegal by asking for it. They could have said no after all.
And if the phone companies did break the law the Administration will most likely use the war time powers arguement to save their bacon.

Now is it an invasion of your privacy? I think so. But only because the total lack of congressional oversite.

But most importantly it sets a dangerous and really creepy precedent because...

Cell phone carriers have records of your phone's GSM location.

that's like having Lojac installed on yourself.
And there's probably nothing illegal about the goverment requesting those either.
How's that for disturbing?