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Monday, January 23, 2006

The perception gulf 

Every now and then one runs across a passage that reveals how wide the gulf is between those of us who believe we face an implacable, unappeasable, widely-dispersed and deeply infiltrated enemy, and those who, er, don't. Bob Herbert's column in this morning's New York Times (sorry, no link) contains just such a passage:
The ostensible aim of the president's surveillance program, conducted by the supersecret [It doesn't seem that "supersecret" to me. - ed.] National Security Agency, is to home in on communications into and out of the United States that involve individuals or organizations suspected of some sort of terror connection. But, as The Times reported last week, F.B.I. officials have repeatedly complained that the N.S.A. has bombarded them with thousands upon thousands of unsubstantiated tips -- names, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and so forth -- that have led nowhere, or to completely innocent individuals.

Whatever its stated goals, the N.S.A. seems to be operating the greatest fishing expedition in the history of the world.

Well, yeah. Recognizing that one might quibble over the connotation of the term, I don't think anybody would say that it isn't a "fishing expedition." I'll say it: when it comes to the jihadis, I want the government to be fishing like wild, and not just with poles. I want them using nets. It appears that I am more than willing to subscribe to Herbert's characterization and still support the NSA's program.

Of course, in citing the complaints of F.B.I. officials, it might be that Herbert was implicitly calling for a vast increase in the number of agents tasked to tracking down the N.S.A.'s "tips," but I doubt it. Still, we cannot let it pass that Herbert's evidence is the whining of an agency that is always in the hunt for bigger appropriations.

Now, Herbert begins and ends his column with an exposition of our alleged darkest fears:
Have you ever talked sexy to your wife or your girlfriend -- or your husband or your boyfriend [In case we thought he was only writing to the males in his audience. - ed.] -- on the telephone? Would you keep talking if you thought that one of Dick Cheney's operatives was listing in?

Since the NSA is only monitoring around 500 calls at a time, you must be, frankly, a raving paranoid if you think the NSA is wasting its time on your sex talk. And even if it were, so what? If you've ever lived in a city, you know that cordless phones transmit all over the damned place. Your neighbors have heard plenty of your phone calls, just as you have heard theirs. Which is your biggest concern -- the one in 60 million chance that the N.S.A. is listening to you (assuming equal distribution of the risk), or that the guy across the hall who you see every day just heard your girlfriend confess that she isn't wearing underwear?

Herbert ends with a quotation from Laurence Tribe:
The background assumptions of privacy will be gradually eroded to the point where we'll wake up one day, or our children will, and it will seem quaint that people at one time, long ago, thought that they could speak in candor.

Has there really been a decline in aggregate candor since we learned that the NSA was monitoring a vanishingly tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of calls made every day?

I have news for you, Professor Tribe: our politically-correct legal culture, in which mere speech can result in huge liability for your employer and the end of your own career, has done vastly more to end "candor" in our society than the mechanistic surveillance of phone calls in or out of countries with high concentrations of jihadis. If we were free to be candid, the authors of this blog would not need pseudonyms. If candor were not under siege already, the president of your own university wouldn't have had to debase himself for having expressed an honest opinion.

In any case, Herbert undermines his own nightmare scenarios with the evidence he presents: If the F.B.I. is charged with mediating the N.S.A.'s tips, and if those "thousands upon thousands" of tips "have either led nowhere, or to completely innocent individuals," what, pray tell, are we worrying about? Nothing, because the F.B.I. isn't going to waste its time interrogating people who said "my date last night was a real bomb." Unless, perhaps, your date lives in Kandahar.

8 Comments:

By Blogger tee bee, at Mon Jan 23, 02:18:00 PM:

It's ironic that we live in an age when, thanks to cell phones and an amazing level of desensitization, we can't get away from hearing detailed descriptions of the trysts and opinions of strangers in malls, airports, or on the street, but the abstractly viewed and vaguely understood notion of intellegence gathering for national safety translates into government intrusion, and is heinous to consider.  

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Mon Jan 23, 02:55:00 PM:

What about the anti-war groups and peace activists and environmental activists being spied on? All here in the U.S.A. and having nothing to do with A.Q.

The potential for abuse of surveillances like data-mining and internet search nets is huge. We agree, no? This administration has proven itself untrustworthy again and again.

Why would I trust this administration, one which eschews any oversight, with all of my personal information?

And why won't the Bushies simply advocate for changed laws instead of arrogantly breaking/ignoring the ones we have?

Domestic spying. Super. I wonder if the Bushies will be paying more attention to those dastardly Quakers in South Florida or the Pro-Life Doctor killer set? It's not hard to answer that one, eh?

If you want to chase Al Qaeda and give away our civil liberties in the process, I would say that you've lost the war before it's over.  

By Blogger tee bee, at Mon Jan 23, 04:14:00 PM:

Screwy, you offer no links, and I've seen no reports of these sacred lefties - or any lefties - being monitored. Oh, wait! I have! They traipse across the front page of the New York Times every day! Someone call the ACLU!

News flash: power, money and technology have the potential for abuse, and they hardly rest in the hands of the White House. Although, after eight years of Clinton's antics, I can see why you'd be suspicious.

News flash deux: laws aren't being broken. both FISA and AUMF permit the admin's actions. Arrogant law-abiders.

You eschew the idea of domestic spying, but the recent conviction of Mohammed Obeid, thanks to the Library Provision of the Patriot Act, should cause you to reconsider (hard to call that one a Quaker). Because of it, you are now safer.

If you're worried about civil liberties, you should worry about Kelo and Islamofascism. Not whether anyone cares about your freely available, not-as-private-as-everyone-around-you-would-like phone chat.  

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Mon Jan 23, 10:12:00 PM:

Good Lord.

If you want links, go read my blog.

I'm guessing you're a John Birch Society charter member, checking under your bed for those goshdarn Reds.

We can protect our nation without secretly, unlawfully, violating civil liberties. We are fighting a gang, a well-funded, homicidal, fundamentalist religious gang.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jan 24, 12:21:00 AM:

Listening in on sexy talk? Let's get real.

Computers sample words, compare them to lists of interesting tags and then apply an algorithim to determine whether it is worthwhile to listen.

It's unlikely in the extreme that my sexy conversation would be intercepted. Unless of course my sexy talk is to one of the suspected terrorist operatives.

There isn't enough discussion of the actual facts on the ground in this issue.

Most importantly, that the numbers that are listened to have been unearthed from captured cell phones and computers. Most likely not mine or my neighbors.  

By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Tue Jan 24, 10:05:00 AM:

SH- you can't have civil liberties if you aren't prepared to protect them. That means tradeoffs. Islamofascism is the threat. Not the ACLU. They're just morons. Now if they start acting all Lynne Stewartish, then they can get wrung up and charged in court too.

You cant walk around with blinders on re: the threat from al qaeda and similar terrorist types. The challenge is needle in a haystack-ish. And I've said this before, if you myopically defend against methods which involve small and ionconsequential civil liberties tradeoffs, you will inevitably have an event which triggers far more draconian losses of civil liberties. Do you recall the list? It is entirely consistent with Ameircna history to see civil liberties narrowed materially in war. Don't be myopic. The NSA thing is NOTHING.

The immaturity of Bob Herbert's article and the silliness of Tribe's comments makes it clear how irrelevant the discussion even is.  

By Blogger Bat One, at Tue Jan 24, 10:36:00 AM:

Professor Tribe needs to spend more of the time left to him outside that comfy ivory tower, availing himself of the rich array of vicarious reality he so clearly disdains.

As for the FBI, it occurs to me that were it not for former AG John Ashcroft's predecessor, and her Deputy, our federal crime fighters would be a lot more practiced at sorting out the wheat from the chaff. Certainly its true that the greatest force in the universe is inertia, but it is also true that with or without the FBI there's still a war going on. It's a bit late to bemoan the way things used to be... back in the 20th century.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Tue Jan 24, 11:01:00 AM:

CP, you speak truth. The thing that a lot of civil libertarians are missing, I think, is that if there is another successful mass casualty attack there will be massive public support for an internal crackdown the likes of which we have not seen since World War II. The NSA is, frankly, theoretical: that's why the Democrats have driven the discussion to the absence of warrants, rather than to the propriety of the eavesdropping in the abstract. I don't know anybody who is concerned about the stuff Herbert raised in his article, but if they were those fears would not be asuaged knowing that the FISA court issued a warrant 72 hours after the fact.  

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