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Bush Eavesdropping - Why do We Care?

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In December, The New York Times revealed that the Bush Administration, has been eavesdropping on our phone calls, by means of National Security Agency computer systems, without a court order. Although the exact nature of the surveillance is highly classified, it appears that the White House has gone on a massive "fishing trip;" one that invades the privacy of thousands of ordinary Americans. This is the third of three articles about Administration eavesdropping - why this matters.

My first article described the probable nature of this eavesdropping. NSA computers monitor the international digital communications stream and - in my hypothetical example - flag two events: I call a suspicious phone number in Pakistan and make an equally suspicious payment to a Pakistani organization. The NSA computer algorithm raises my "threat score" and the software decides to monitor my digital traffic in order to ascertain whether or not I am a real threat. As a result, NSA computers begin to scan all my phone calls, emails, and financial transactions.

My second article talked about the legality of the NSA "fishing trip." I noted that there is a specific law - the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act - that is supposed to deal with domestic surveillance. The Bush Administration has ignored this. Most lawyers feel that their action is illegal.

Americans are divided on the subject of eavesdropping. The latest Gallup Poll conducted January 20-22, finds half of Americans (51 percent) believe the Bush administration was wrong in wiretapping terrorist-linked telephone conversations without first obtaining a court order, while 46 percent say it was right. However, these poll results are fragile, highly dependent upon the exact wording of the question. The results shift if respondents are asked if its okay to eavesdrop on "average Americans" versus "suspected terrorists."

For many Americans, the ultimate criterion on eavesdropping is not "is it legal?" but simply, "does it work?" If the Bush eavesdropping protects us, then why should we worry about how the White House goes about spying on terrorist suspects?

However, American history teaches us that there are three distinct reasons to worry about illegal Federal actions such as warrantless domestic eavesdropping. The first is that they inevitably become political. The second reason is that expanded Presidential power overturns constitutional checks and balances. The final reason is that this surveillance is not a sign of strength, but rather of incompetence.

The history of illegal eavesdropping in the US teaches that it is abusive and something to fear. There is not a brick wall between well-reasoned security operations and sleazy political backstabbing. The history of surveillance operations such as COINTELPRO indicates that for every baddie the Feds tracked, the Ku Klux Klan, they monitored a goodie, Martin Luther King, Jr. Opponents of the regime in power got monitored and, in many cases, harassed.

Do we really trust the Bush Administration to exercise good judgement in eavesdropping on our digital correspondence? Be serious. This is the same Administration that has spied on Quaker Meetings and sent IRS agents to hassle ministers who preached against the war. This is the same Administration that routinely lies about key matters of national policy such as the presence of WMDs in Iraq. If they eavesdrop on our communications, they will inevitably use this information for political purposes""to enhance their power.

The second reason we should worry is because of the expansion of Presidential power. This may seem like a theoretical concern, but it's not. The founders had the wisdom to provide for separation of powers in the constitution. In the matter of domestic surveillance, Congress indisputably has the authority to set the rules, and has done so--the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act. This law clearly describes the process that must be followed when eavesdropping on Americans; the courts protect our fourth Amendment rights, which ensures that there must be "probable cause" for the surveillance. The President has simply blown off Congress and the Federal courts""and our rights.

This is not the only instance where President Bush has sought to expand Presidential powers considerably beyond those envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. After Bush took us to war by misleading Congress, and the American people, about the danger posed by Iraq, his Administration rewrote the rulebook about treatment of suspects by condoning torture.

Finally, there is no evidence that the NSA program of warrantless surveillance has "helped prevent terrorist attacks," as the President claimed in his State-of-the-Union address. The examples Bush cites--the arrest of a crazy, who planned to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch attack, or thwarting an attack on an L.A. skyscraper""were not produced by warrantless surveillance. There is abundant evidence that the NSA program is another example of Administration incompetence, a gigantic waste of our money. Many observers suggest that the funds spent on the NSA system would be better spent recruiting more intelligence agents and training them in Urdu and the other languages spoken by Al Qaeda operators.

The history of the Bush Administration indicates that they don't do well on large projects""with the exception of presidential elections. They screwed up the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. They have blown homeland security, while creating a mammoth, dysfunctional bureaucracy. They failed to respond to Hurricane Katrina. George Bush and his cronies have not led, they have bungled.

Americans are right to be concerned about the threat of terrorism. But the answer is not a vast, clandestine surveillance operation that threatens the privacy of every American. The answer lies in competence, in a well-thought-out program of homeland security.

Sadly, competence is not something that we can expect from this Administration, which is more interested in increasing its own power than it is in protecting America.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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