08 August 2007

Warrantless Surveillance and National Security, a debate

In memory of Nagasaki, August 8, 1945; may it never happen again.

I've been in a dialog with a friend about, generally, the justification of illegal surveillance for national security. The debate spills over into the whole subject of credible threat of domestic major terrorism, and what's being done about it. Below is the last go-round in an e-mail exchange.

My friend:

I am not worried about ANY administration during a war spying or wiretapping those whom they believe are attempting to injure citizens. I really don't think that the administration or any administration for that matter NEEDS any'permission' to wiretap or spy on anyone they choose as they'll do it anyway and then deny it...so what else is new. It may be warrantless, but it isn't unwarranted in my opinion. If there weren't people trying to kill us at home, then I would feel as you do now...as I did during Nixon's administration, or the subsequent discovery of such things routinely happening. Those are wrong because they're not national security issues (even though they might say they are)....

and no...I really don't think I'm paranoid about their wanting to kill us here. So we'll just differ on that one and hope for godsake that such events never unfold here. Personally, I wouldn't take the risk...certainly history is on my side of this one.


I didn't mean to impugn your views as paranoid. Poor choice of words. I just meant that that particular fear, which has been much discussed (i.e., Musharraf falls, al Qaida takes over and gets Pakistan's nukes), fails to take a number of factors into account that actually make that particular outcome so unlikely that it isn't worth the time to worry about it. (Not that there aren't plenty of other security concerns to worry about; and not that a wise government wouldn't have contingency plans even for these less-than-likely kinds of scenarios; I hope ours does).

You're right, we'll have to agree to disagree. I don't discount that there is a significant danger of terrorist attack, but I also don't expect you to agree with me about my assessment of it and my views of what should be done about it. Because it's only natural that people with different perspectives will look at the same situation, and reach different conclusions.

But ask yourself. If this administration, with its supposed secret intelligence that we're not privy to, really believed, as you do, that the danger of nuclear or other grand-scale wmd internal terrorist attack is so extreme, as to justify throwing out the 4th amendment (because that's what they've done, among other abuses of power), wouldn't they take serious action on some other rather obvious fronts? Wouldn't they tell the shipping companies their bottom line is less important than security, so we're going to spend the money, and make some sacrifices in the free flow of commerce, to make ports secure? Wouldn't they make an energy security "Manhattan Project" a highest national priority, because independence from Mideast Oil is so obviously a longterm strategic imperative? Wouldn't they at least encourage American youth to join the military, instead of sending National Guard and Reservists, who don't even get lifetime medical care if they're injured, for two and three tours of duty? (When have you heard Bush or Cheney ask for any sacrifice?) Wouldn't they distance themselves (at least) from the regime in Saudi Arabia, which is clearly playing both sides? Wouldn't they focus their war on where the terrorists are, not on some failed neoconservative dream of Empire? Wouldn't they ask the American civilian population to make some sacrifices, instead of cutting taxes in "wartime" and running up the worst deficits in history? I just don't buy it. The danger is real, but not extreme, and, even if it were, it does not justify this abrogation of the constitution.

The "warranted" surveillance you're talking about can and should be done legally. I've never said we shouldn't pursue domestic intelligence. We have in place a system that allows for this, and the argument that it isn't working is, I'm convinced, entirely bogus. I've read reams about this subject, and I'm totally convinced that's true. When a government asks for and gets secretive powers it doesn't need and uses national security as a pretext, watch out. We've been down this road before, with some real ugly results. This will likely be much worse if it isn't reversed. And the effects will have nothing to do with national security.

OK, I know, you don't agree, which is fine. People differ. I listen to what you've said, and I read what you sent me to read, but I'm not convinced.

I mentioned (before and above) several things that are really, really obvious that we should do to increase our security from domestic terrorist attack. Until those things are done, I can't take the fear-mongering of this administration too seriously, because I don't believe they believe their own story line. It just doesn't add up. They're more interested in preserving their domestic political power and preserving right-wing government, and that's the real reason they want to trash the constitution.

And having reiterated all that, I'll concur, let's hope and pray it never happens. I don't believe this issue (illegal surveillance) has anything to do with preventing it, but to tell you the truth, the other failures I mentioned above actually do worry me quite a bit, and I have not seen any significant interest in addressing them to make us safer in either party. I hope the next administration, even if it's (oh, the pain! the horror!) Republican, will do something about those problems, which to my mind are far more serious issues of national security.


  1. Oh, please, please, please, save me from the overblown terrorist threat by making my country something other than what it's supposed to be! It will be so worth it to be alive in a surveillance state/dictatorship that needs no permission from anyone to do anything it wants! Just keep 'American Idol' on TV and get control of the oil fields in the Middle East so I can continue to live 50 miles outside of Phoenix, commute every day in my SUV, and keep my A/C on all the time while I go to the mall--because we have to fight for our way of life, dammit! AND THEY'RE COMING TO GET US!!!! AHHHHHH!!!!!!

    OK, I'll say it. Paranoid. Nobody needs to break the law here at home to stop them over there. That's moronic. The nice thing about our country is that we've gone from 'Live free or die' and 'Give me liberty or give me death' to 'Oh, do anything you want, just save me from the evil-doers'.

    Pathetic. How the hell these scared ninnies can call themselves Americans is beyond me. And I live in New York City, so don't tell me how scary the terrorists are. This administration has done more to help them achieve their goals than they even could have done on their own.

    Cripes, you people piss me off.

  2. Thanks for your comment, but I'm a little baffled by it. I was arguing strongly against an overreaction to terrorism, and against lawlessness in response to it, not for these, so I'm not sure to whom you're directing your invective. I don't minimize the risk of a lunatic blowing up a suitcase bomb or something to the extent you do, but generally I agree that the threat of terrorism has been deliberately exaggerated for political expediency, which I assume is your point.


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