Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Private eyes are watching you

Sorry for my long absence. The Bush-NSA controversy has finally yanked me out of my blogging break.

So far this is taking the ordinary trajectory (senators express deep concern, hearings are planned, Gonzalez spins, Bush repeats the 9/11 mantra a few times and huffs about lives being at stake, and nothing much changes). But if is what it appears to be, it may not be going away, and could be big trouble for Bush. The evidence available so far (nicely summarized by Kevin Drum here) points to some kind of data-mining or sorting operation in which huge quantities of data – emails, cookies, gas bills, whatever – are scanned looking for particular patterns or strings of data. Such a new technology-dependent operation could be useful, and it would not be automatically authorized by FISA – or perhaps any judge. Hence there may be legitimate practical reasons for breaking the law – which, let's be clear, is obviously what Bush did.

I don’t think we can judge the true need for or the efficacy of this domestic spying effort right at this moment. What was the urgency? Was it a specific case? Was it a realization that we were capable of doing something potentially effective but had no legal authority to do it, and getting that authority would be problematic? Knowing how Cheney and Bush operate, I figure the latter. But we don't know right now.

If the president is allowed to break the law as he sees fit in the pursuit of terrorist suspects, without oversight or any checks from other branches of government – or without even a basic understanding by those branches of what he’s doing – it’s crazy, and, well, un-American. As Orwell (and the Bush administration) have demonstrated, language is a flexible and perverse instrument. It's extremely easy for a government to label someone it doesn't like a "terrorist." And the line between any president's good and bad judgment is dangerously thin.

This is a real test for our system. I hope the three branches of government are capable of sorting this out. They haven't been doing such a hot job on that front lately.

The reason they may have to – and why this is potentially big trouble for Bush – lies in the nature of the program. At least from the clues so far, what the NSA is doing is not what people normally think of and may be inclined to support when the "domestic spying" phrase is floated – eavesdropping on a handful of nefarious evil-doers, then catching them or otherwise disrupting their plot to blow something up. If it is data mining, the problem from a political standpoint is that, well, nobody likes the idea of the government reading their emails. That would be extremely unpopular.

Now, perhaps people won’t mind if this is a kind of sorting algorithm in which email or other personal information is scanned and the vast majority discarded without a human being ever laying eyes on it. But (without knowing a damn thing about this) no investigative process is entirely automated. Computers are extremely useful, but human eyes have to enter the process at some point before it can pinpoint the pieces of information that finger bad guys. Which means Joe NSA may be looking at your last credit card bill at this very moment.