Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Iceberg Cometh

I find I disagree with William Arkin's analysis occasionally, but his Washington Post blog Early Warning often provides valuable information about the U.S. intelligence community. His coverage of the Pentagon's surveillance programs were among the most comprehensive you'd find anywhere. Today, his entry is "Telephone Records are just the Tip of NSA's Iceberg." He reports:

The National Security Agency and other U.S. government organizations have developed hundreds of software programs and analytic tools to "harvest" intelligence, and they've created dozens of gigantic databases designed to discover potential terrorist activity both inside the United States and overseas.

These cutting edge tools -- some highly classified because of their functions and capabilities -- continually process hundreds of billions of what are called "structured" data records, including telephone call records and e-mail headers contained in information "feeds" that have been established to flow into the intelligence agencies.

The multi-billion dollar program, which [sic] began before 9/11 but has been accelerated since then. Well over 100 government contractors have participated, including both small boutique companies whose products include commercial off-the-shelf software and some of the largest defense contractors, who have developed specialized software and tools exclusively for government use.

Arkin goes on on to list "some 500 software tools, databases, data mining and processing efforts contracted for, under development or in use at the NSA and other intelligence agencies today." I'd be interested to know how many of the programs Arkin mentions are domestic versus foreign, and how many of these programs target ordinary, innocent Americans. As one commentator points out, one program is ironically named "Freedom." Other commentators added a few more programs to the list!

The Post typically has some very smart, well-informed readers. A few other comments struck me:

"1. A secret spy agency under investigation by the US Department of Justice told the Justice Department to stop... and it did.
2. I paraphrase Benjamin Franklin "Those who would give up liberty for a sense of security deserve neither."

"Didn't Bush say yesterday, when questioned about NSA's examination of phone records: "We're not mining or trawling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. . ." I know Bush claims they are not examining the content of the calls, only usage patterns, etc., but isn't Bush's statement denying "mining or trawling" simply not true? Has the press pointed this out?"

""The multi-billion dollar program, which began before 9/11 but has been accelerated since then." I find this potentially very alarming. How long "before" 9/11 did this program begin ? who asked
for it, what were the stated reasons at the time (before 9/11) ????"

"Spying is a necessity in a hostile world and this has been recognized for ages. What is new and very dangerous is that this is now happening in America WITHOUT OVERSIGHT."

Yet again, no sane American would claim that the government should not monitor terrorists. However, there's no reason not to do it legally. Any system without oversight and accountability invites abuse. For all this activity, Osama bin Laden is still free… and guess what, he's not hiding out in Topeka and making phone calls to Domino's. Despite the consistent, obtuse cries that revealing such programs helps the enemy, of course terrorists, like mobsters, suspect every phone call might be tapped! Bin Laden reportedly uses hand-written notes and I'm sure al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations use disposable cell phones. The Moussaoui trial reminds us that the FBI's problem regarding 9/11 was not that they lacked the intelligence they needed; they didn't act on it. It's really quite shameful that bin Laden has still not been caught, especially since we had the opportunity to do so at Tora Bora. However, the Constitution, and its observance domestically, is a much more important issue. Fear should never lead to curtailing essential civil liberties. But even that misses the point somewhat; choosing between fighting terrorism and upholding the Constitution is a false dilemma dangerous to embrace.

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