Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Reporters' Phones Tapped?

I doubt there's any major reporter that didn't wonder about his or her phone being tapped when news broke of the NSA call-tracking program. Today, there's evidence that even if reporter's phones are not being tapped, their phone records are being scrutinized. Joshua Micah Marshall at Talking Points Memo links a story posted by ABC's Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross:

A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we call in an effort to root out confidential sources.

"It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick," the source told us in an in-person conversation.

How worried should they be? Well:

Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with The New York Times and The Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation.

Does this impulse originate from the CIA or the White House, and are they in accord? Because Porter Goss, a partisan Bush political appointee, has until very recently been running the CIA, it's highly unlikely this activity would proceed without Bush's implicit approval and may be the result of an explicit order from his administration.

Ross reports ABC is under scrutiny because of their reporting on CIA secret prisons and the CIA use of predator missiles in Pakistan. At The New York Times, the targets would undoubtedly include James Risen and Eric Lichtblau for their Pulitzer-winning work revealing another illegal NSA program of domestic surveillance. At The Washington Post, one of the targets would have to be Dana Priest, who also just won a Pulitzer, for her excellent reporting about CIA black op prisons located in foreign countries and the practice of "extraordinary rendition."

In Dana Priest's weekly online chat on 5/11/06, one interchange made the rounds in the blogosphere:

Rockville, Md.: Isn't it possible that the massive database of phone records could also be used to expose whistleblowers, reporters onto stories damaging to the Bush administration, and/or political opponents of the current administration?

Dana Priest: hmmm. sure hope we can answer that for you, and for me, by the end of the day.

Two other interchanges received less play on the web but are also essential:

Anonymous: Dana - How does the NSA data "drift net" that was exposed today differ from the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program led by Poindexter that was supposedly disbanded? Did the Pentagon just continue the program under a different name?

Dana Priest: That's a possibility. We don't know yet.
Washington, D.C.: In response to anonymous and TIA, this from Feb 2006--The National Journal reports that the Pentagon transferred two of the most important TIA components of TIA to Advanced Research and Development Activity (ARDA), located at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. One piece was the Information Awareness Prototype System. It helped extract, analyze and disseminate data collected under the project. Once the Senate cut off funding, ARDA stepped forward to fund the program and it was given a new name "Basketball." All references to TIA were dropped

Dana Priest: thank you. passing on...

The National Journal article can be read here. William Arkin has previously reported on his Washington Post blog Early Warning similar news. When the Pentagon was criticized for performing surveillance on Quakers, vegetarians, lesbians and peace groups (NBC's account here and Arkin's account here), and illegally retained records they were required to destroy, essentially they merely moved the program to escape further scrutiny.

So are Dana Priest's phone records being scrutinized, along with other recent Pulitzer winners at The Times? Considering the track record and mentality of the Bush administration, I'd frankly be shocked if they hadn't at least inquired about such an action. If they already possessed the records, provided by the NSA call-tracking program, and they wanted to track down the government officials who leaked information that made them look bad, what would restrain them? Unless there was serious internal dissent, I can't imagine them holding back… After all, in the Plame affair, Bush has not launched his own investigation, fired people, acknowledged a problem and pledged to do things differently (in fact, he authorized Libby to leak classified information while publicly decrying leaking!). Similarly, with their secret torture policy, the Bush administration faced serious opposition in private from career officials of integrity such as Alberto J. Mora but merely did an end-run around them. The same pattern has played out again and again: we can do anything we want to do, we will not be forthcoming, and we will only reveal information or act in an honorable fashion when outmaneuvered and forced to do so.

The exact extent of any activity against reporters is of course unclear, but the Bush administration doesn't need much information to work with, and who the hell trusts these guys? As Ross reports:

Under Bush Administration guidelines, it is not considered illegal for the government to keep track of numbers dialed by phone customers.

The official who warned ABC News said there was no indication our phones were being tapped so the content of the conversation could be recorded.

A pattern of phone calls from a reporter, however, could provide valuable clues for leak investigators.

Who watches the watchmen? And who are the watchmen? On Friday, 5/14/06, The New York Times' Scott Shane and Eric Lichtblau reported that after 9/11 Vice President Dick Cheney and key aide David Addington pushed the NSA to conduct warrantless wiretaps, according to "two senior intelligence officials":

If people suspected of links to Al Qaeda made calls inside the United States, the vice president and Mr. Addington thought eavesdropping without warrants "could be done and should be done," one of them said.

He added: "That's not what the N.S.A. lawyers think."

The other official said there was "a very healthy debate" over the issue. The vice president's staff was "pushing and pushing, and it was up to the N.S.A. lawyers to draw a line and say absolutely not."

Healthy debate? Riiiiight. When in the history of the Office of the Vice Presidency has Dick Cheney and his staff ever backed off? From the Iraq war, to torture policy, to energy policy, to taxes, to transparency, to unilateral executive power, the occasions Cheney has not gotten his way are few, if any exist. The fact that a program he wanted currently exists suggests that the usual pattern of Cheney prevailing continued.

As to these latest revelations about reporters under scrutiny, Josh Marshall cogently observes:

I think part of the issue for many people on the administration's various forms of surveillance is not just that some of [their] activities seem to be illegal or unconstitutional on their face. I think many people are probably willing to be open-minded, for better or worse, on pushing the constitutional envelope. But given the people in charge of the executive branch today, you just can't have any confidence that these tools will be restricted to targeting terrorists. Start grabbing up phone records to data-mine for terrorists and then the tools are just too tempting for your leak investigations. Once you do that, why not just keep an eye on your critics too? After all, they're the ones most likely to get the leaks, right? So, same difference. The folks around the president don't recognize any real distinctions among those they consider enemies. So we'd be foolish to think they wouldn't bring these tools to bear on all of them. Once you set aside the law as your guide for action and view the president's will as a source of legitimacy in itself, then everything becomes possible and justifiable.

Power without checks and balances, without oversight, almost always leads to abuse. As with most issues with the Bush administration, this really comes down to, do you trust these guys? If Bush's current job approval ratings are any indication, over 70% of the country says no (Bush's personal ratings have plummeted as well). Given that this administration has never restrained its own power through governmental oversight or simple moral conscience, why would anyone believe they would voluntarily start doing so now?

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