Friday, January 13, 2006

The Wiretapping Horror

Jonah Goldberg gets it right, as best I can tell:

Here's what happened. After 9/11, authorities found a bunch of e-mail addresses and phone numbers in the phones and computers of confirmed terrorists. They tracked down those leads. Most of the people the NSA started eavesdropping on - about 7,000 - lived overseas, and their phone calls were to other foreigners living abroad. But, according to Risen's book, "about 500 people" living in the U.S. who were in contact with suspected terrorists had their communications tapped. Risen calls this "large-scale" spying on the American people even though, as the Weekly Standard recently noted, this constitutes "1.7 ten-thousandths of 1 percent of the U.S. population."

Now, forgive me for not loading up my car with bottled water and canned goods and heading off into the hills to fight with the partisans, but I just don't see what the big deal is. Yes, yes, "slippery slopes" and all that. Gotcha. What else do you have? Because that isn't enough. If you go looking for slippery slopes, you'll always find them. That doesn't mean they're really there. The Patriot Act was called a banana peel on the path to hell, and yet it has turned out to be very difficult to even keep it alive.


Jeff said...


I understand that we needed to be wiretapping these guys...but why didn't the president get Congressional approval or go through the FISA courts? Getting approval would not have tipped anyone off, it seems to me that the administration's decision was based on its interpretation of executive power. However, when you are fighting a war---the need to consult and build consensus greatly matters. The president would have been given the authority by the courts or the Congress but he didn't bother to ask. When the president wonders why many Democrats are so critical of his war policies-- (admittedly some would be critical no matter what)some of the blame falls on him for moves like this. If you consult and bring others in on the administration's policymaking, you are more likely to build consensus. If John Kerry or Bill Clinton were president, I would find this equally troubling.

Stephen said...

Timothy Nafatali said that it was because we are not tapping individuals or listening to conversations. It isn't wiretapping like we see on TV. Most likely, the NSA starts by looking at communication patterns from a variety of sources. I wish I could remember how Naftali put it, but he said something like (or I thought at the time, in response to his comments), "How can you get a warrant on an math formula?" We are spying on patterns of communication.

Jeff said...


Your comments are well-taken. This sort of "spying" is unusual and complicated---more so than most talking heads (of both sides) reveal. I just don't understand why--Bush couldn't have asked for Congressional approval or have some legislation crafted which would create courts that would fit the realities of the age. Look, I trust the NSA and believe the president when he says that these are bad guys who need to be eavesdropped upon--I realize that many Democrats (but not most) don't agree with me. This will be a long struggle---now is the time to create the judicial and legal framework so that we can deal with terrorism in a manner that fits our traditions (warrants, judicial and congressional oversight). Bush could still put this to his partisan advantage--put Democrats on record as opposing spying on suspected terrorists--that is why I think he would get a very wide-ranging bill that would grant him the authority to do so. However, I believe the administratiion's unwillingness to do so is based on principle--they have a more expansionary vision of executive power during a time of war. This is a vision I don't share. I believe that we are creative enough to build a legal framework to fight terrorism AND maintain certain legal traditions. This is not the beginning of a police state or anything of the sort---it is a philosophy of government that I find disturbing.

Tom said...


I agree--once the issue becomes an issue we have to come up with some sort of solution that involves other branches of government and other political parties and whatever. But it's a waste of time and resources and public will to have debates over Congress granting the president some sort of broad authority to do what everyone knows needs to be done.

My only question is when do the people fighting the wars for us get the benefit of the doubt? Our half-cocked wannabe Woodward and Bernstein journalists dig up and expose stuff that common sense ought to tell them is a matter of national security and would best be left alone. Politicians exploit the issue and we argue about it like a bunch of fools. Meantime, our enemies laugh at our inability to get out of our own way, and they plan the next attacks.

I know, I know, (and I'm not talking to Jeff here) our self-criticism and all that is what separates us from the bad guys and blah blah blah. We've done worse in almost all our past wars and still managed to hold together the republic.

Paul said...

Bush was given Congressional approval through three separate resolutions stating he could do whatever was necessary to combat global terrorism.

This is definitely a 'damned if you do...' situation. If he wiretaps and prevents terror attacks, people get upset at the process; if a terror attack occurs, officials get dragged before Congressional hearings and are asked, 'why didn't you wiretap these guys?'

Cover of this week's issue of Newsweek is interesting. Bush in foreground with menacing look on face. Cheney in background with even more menacing look on face. Caption: How Much POWER Should They Have. Disturbing that this is what passes for mainstream journalism these days.

Jeff said...

Tom and Stephen,

Something unrelated to this...did you know that the AA Serenity Prayer was origninally penned by Niebuhr? I am reading through some of Schlesinger's and Niebuhr's papers for my introduction and found this out---maybe this was conventional wisdom but it was one of those "isn't history the coolest damn thing ever."

Paul said...

Reliapundit: "ALL of these large sales (of disposable cell phones) came RIGHT AFTER the NYTIMES NSA leak (12/15/05). Though this is circumstantial, it is HIGHLY SUGGESTIVE that the leak alerted the sleeper cells HERE (and perhaps elsewhere), and that they are adapting their SOP's as a result; thus, they are making it tougher for us to prevent an attack."

Stephen said...

I think the worry, and this is just a guess, is that the process of drafting legislation (or some kind of oversight) would reveal too much about methods. There are some thorny issues here. How do you grant the authority without revealing what you are granting the authority to do? How do you oversee something that only a handful of experts in the world are capable of understanding? In a case like this, the creator of the program, formula, or whatever it is, might be the only person in the world who understands it. Yes, I do find that scary.