There's a common thread between the NSA quasi-wiretapping revelations and the ongoing drone controversy: Too much is made of the government program itself, and in particular the technologies involved. The debate becomes “Is data mining okay?” or “Are drone strikes okay?” In fact, these are the wrong questions. What's dangerous about these capabilities isn't just that they're there — as is often pointed out, the government has always been able to spy on people or blow them up, it just hasn't always been this cheap. What's dangerous is that the government is running these programs in secrecy, with no possible accountability. That should be the headline.
The danger in overemphasizing the NSA's data mining capabilities is evident in the recent post by David Simon, whose work covering the Baltimore Police Department formed the basis of his acclaimed T.V. show, The Wire. Naturally, this happens to be an area whose inner workings he's intimately familiar with.
Is it just me or does the entire news media — as well as all the agitators and self-righteous bloviators on both sides of the aisle — not understand even the rudiments of electronic intercepts and the manner in which law enforcement actually uses such intercepts? It would seem so.He then goes on to detail a case from the 1980s that I suspect was the basis of the first season of The Wire — the call data from a number of city pay phones was monitored (even though innocent people also used the phones), and no-one actually listened to any phone calls unless
Setting aside the problem with the analogy (the police had probable cause to suspect an actual particular crime, where the NSA is just grabbing the data from everyone all the time in case someone's planning something), he glosses over the real danger until much later in the post (emphasis mine):
When the Guardian, or the Washington Post or the New York Times editorial board — which displayed an astonishing ignorance of the realities of modern electronic surveillance in its quick, shallow wade into this non-controversy — are able to cite the misuse of the data for reasons other than the interception of terrorist communication, or to show that Americans actually had their communications monitored without sufficient probable cause and judicial review and approval of that monitoring, then we will have ourselves a nice, workable scandal. It can certainly happen, and given that the tension between national security and privacy is certain and constant, it probably will happen at points. And in fairness, having the FISA courts rulings so hidden from citizen review, makes even the discovery of such misuse problematic. The internal review of that court’s rulings needs to be somehow aggressive and independent, while still preserving national security secrets. That’s very tricky.“Problematic”? Actually, it makes it completely impossible. And which national security secrets are at stake here? We don't even know why the government wants the NSA program to be secret in the first place. Finally, as Simon points out, this is all apparently legal, as decided by the FISA court, but we don't even get to know how the law is being interpreted to make it legal. Basically, the Fourth Amendment is now classified. How can a democracy possibly function this way?
The next time Obama says he “welcomes this debate,” I hope someone's on hand to call him on it. No, you don't. A whistleblower broke the law so that we could have this debate. The threat to democracy isn't that the government can spy on us, it's that we can't hold them accountable or even know what they're doing or whether it's legal. It's the secrecy, stupid.