Thursday, January 05, 2006

Now that the panic is over...

Now that the panic is over on President Bush's unwarranted wiretaps, I want to explain why it was not and is not a big deal. The argument is that if he is able to wiretap American citizens, he does not have to stop with terrorists, he can wiretap any of us. This is true to a certain extent. He technically can do this. But, think about what you talk about on the phone. The vast majority of us talk about nothing really important. GW doesn't want to know that Tia Lencha has toenail fungus. He doesn't want to know that you're out of milk and Pedro should bring some on his way home from work. There is so much minutae in our everyday phone conversations that it is silly to think that any one of us could be a target. Are all of us terrorists? No, of course not. Then what have we to fear?

What generally stops our intelligence services like the CIA and NSA from tapping American citizens is simply a legal demarcation. Intelligence can intercept and use information outside of the U.S. They are forbidden from doing this with Americans or on American soil. The trouble with terrorism is that the terrorists often live here. So, if a foreign terrorist calls one here, do we not gather intelligence because the local terrorist is also a citizen? What about the communities of terrorists who are here? They hate America and don't consider themselves one of us.

The NSA is capable of tracking all sorts of signals in many countries, including the U.S. They have computers analyzing recordings looking for key words and phrases. If any items of interest come up, the recording goes to an analyst who will determine if the recording is useful intelligence or not. The point is, they already can tap phones and listen in on radio signals from your mobile phone. They don't because you talk about really unimportant things, you don't pose a threat to the country, and they know that you don't know any terrorists. Most of all, they don't tap our phones because we are Americans and the overall presumption is that Americans don't hate America and want to destroy the country.

Anybody telling you that the President is violating the country's civil liberties by tapping terrorist phones without a warrant is trying to instill fear about something that in all most likelihood will never happen because we all have such boring lives. The expectation is that you will be more afraid of being tapped than you will be afraid of another terrorist attack. Terrorists are a real threat, versus the imagined threat of eavesdropping. Your conversation with mom or your girlfriend, although important to you, is really of no interest to most of us. Besides, the government can tap you with a warrant already without you knowing. Do you feel better now? If you don't know that your conversation is being recorded anyway, of what use is it to you whether it was warranted or not? It can't be used in court if it was unwarranted. The problem with terrorists is that they generally don't live long enough to go to court.

When terrorists do make it to court, it's usually for something unrelated like assault and battery or carrying illegal weapons. I had a brief conversation with a prosecutor who got a job with the State Department to help fight the terrorist threat. I asked how this person was hired into the position. The story is that she was a criminal prosecutor and whenever there was a middle eastern defendent, she and other officials noticed that there were other middle eastern men watching the proceedings. They noticed that these men were present at many trials involving young men who fit the profile of a terrorist. She also noticed that they often met bail despite not having family in the country. Naturally, her office started investigating and picking up information that they would then share with FBI and other agencies. She was a local prosecutor, so her scope was limited to the crime committed. So, she conducted the criminal investigations as a means for gathering intelligence to share with federal investigators.The point is, our ability to gather information to prevent another attack should not end at our country's border. We have been infiltrated, they live amongst us. Fortunately, they fit a profile and we have an idea who to target. In most cases, it won't be Juan, Pepe, Zenaida, or Pancho. I trust that the intelligence services are able to narrow down the list of suspects significantly so that most true Americans won't be affected by unwarranted wiretapping. Many Americans do, however, undergo warranted wiretapping by the federal, state, and local law enforcement. These people are often suspected of wrongdoing, as are terrorist suspects. Most of us are not criminals or terrorists, so we have nothing to fear.

If you are still concerned, write your Congressman or Senator and express your concern about his giving the President authorization for doing it. Your best protection, however is not to conduct terrorist plots or illegal business on a phone. Conduct your wrongdoing in person. Use the phone for everything else; unless you worry that the President will go around spreading chismes about you and the rest of the 260 million Americans, these are lottery odds. In that case, just don't use the phone. Of course, this is absurd! It's equally absurd to think that you will be tapped by the President. You are more likely to be tapped by cops with a warrant, yet you don't worry about that.

Click here for more reasons to be skeptical.

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