(I've posted an extended version of this on my blog, W. David
Stephenson blogs on homeland security, et al.
Just as the mainstream started paying attention to criticism of the Iraq War when retired generals came forth, perhaps the NSA wireless wiretap and phone records trolling will get more attention now that Ira Winkler, a former NSA analyst, Hall of Fame Award winner from the Information Systems Security Association and leading cyber-security expert, has weighed in with a column attacking these practices. Winkler, who supports the need for the government to collect intelligence on foreign terrorist threats, says, "The case involves fundamental issues related to NSA's missions and longstanding rules of engagement. What's even more dismaying is the lack of public reaction to this."
I urge you to
read the entire commentary, but here's my 2 cents worth.
Winkler: one of the most troubling aspects of this whole situation is how approximately 1/2 of the US public, according to polls,
tolerate this fundamental violation of the Bill of Rights, and, equally
important, the balance of powers between the 3 branches of government,
in the name of fighting terrorism. Shame!
Winkler reminds us that use of foreign intelligence agencies to
collect data on US citizens is covered by FISA, the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was, in part, enacted to counter
Nixon's abuses during Watergate. As Winkler points out, the requirement that the
government get a warrant from the FISA court (which can be requested,
BTW, up to 72 hrs. after the fact, eliminating that excuse) had worked
well since 1978, (they've only turned down a handful of requests) and
"it involves a fundamental aspect of the US Constitution -- its system
of checks and balances."
Nor does he buy Bush's arguments that this requirement is too
" The President claims that the process
of getting those warrants -- of complying with the law -- is too
time-consuming. Normally that would sound like simple laziness,
but the reality is that the program is so large that they would need an
army of lawyers to get all the warrants they'd need to be in compliance
with FISA. But the law is the law. No president has the right to pick and
choose which laws they find convenient to follow." (my emphasis)
We've heard the constitutional issues from other critics.
Winkler is perhaps most damning because of his professional expertise.
He points out there's also a pragmatic reason why avoiding the warrants
is bad: it's sloppy management:
".... the process of obtaining the
warrants has an effect on quality control. To date, FBI agents
have been sent out to do thousands of investigations based on this
warrantless wiretapping. None
of those investigations turned up a legitimate lead. [my
emphasis] I have spoken to about a dozen agents, and they all roll
their eyes and indicate disgust with the man-years of wasted effort
being put into physically examining NSA 'leads.'
"This scattershot attempt at data mining
drags FBI agents away from real investigations, while destroying NSA's
credibility in the eyes of law enforcement and the public in general.
That loss of credibility makes NSA the agency that cried 'wolf' -- and
after so many false leads, should they provide something useful, the
data will be looked at skeptically and perhaps given lower priority by
law enforcement than it would otherwise have been given.
Nor does he buy Bush's reassurances
Tuesday that "We do not listen to domestic phone calls without court
"And now we discover that NSA is
searching through every possible phone call made in the US. They
claim that NSA is not receiving any personally identifying
information. Frankly you have to be a complete moron to believe
that. It is trivial to narrow down access to a phone number to
just a few members of a household, if not in fact to exactly one person.
"The government claims that it got the
information legally since it was given the data or bought it from the
telecom companies. Perhaps, but USA Today reports that at least
one company (Qwest) received threats from the US government for not
cooperating. That's extortion -- another crime.
"..........And so what if the NSA isn't
to the calls themselves? An intelligence agency doesn't need to hear
your chatter to invade your privacy. By
simply tying numbers together -- an intelligence discipline of traffic
analysis -- I assure you I can put together a portrait of your
I'll know your friends, your hobbies, where your children go to school,
if you're having an affair, whether you plan to take a trip, and even
when you're awake or asleep. Give me a list of whom you're
I can tell most of the critical things I need to know about you.
"Unnerved at the prospect of one person
holding that data? You should be. While I can personally attest to the
fact that the vast majority of NSA employees are good and honest
people, NSA has more than its share of bitter, vindictive mid- and
senior-level bureaucrats. I
not trust my personal information with these people, as I have
personally seen them use internal information against their enemies.
Finally, and perhaps most important, IMHO, Winkler rakes you and me over the coals for not
"Congress is not exercising any
backbone at all, and neither is their constituents -- aka you.
Every time we receive new information about the NSA domestic spying
program, it gets exponentially worse, and it's clear that we still have
no clue as to the full extent of the program. More importantly,
the courts and Congress do not appear to have a clue as to the full
extent of the program, and those bodies are constitutionally required
to exercise checks and balances over the NSA. The actions taken
by the executive branch after September 11th aren't protecting our
freedom. They are usurping it.