Imperfect System = Tortured Solutions
Much rending of hair and gnashing of teeth has been taking place since a leak in the New York Times revealed the existence of a Presidentially authorized secret program to intercept and exploit the communications of suspected terrorists that might be operating in the US.
Under a presidential order signed in 2002, [NSA] has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible “dirty numbers” linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.
As framed by the Times and most other media outlets, the formerly secret directive is a return of CHAOS, SHAMROCK, and COINTELPRO, or in other words: conducting warrant-less and unfettered spying on dissenting but otherwise patriotic Americans.
Focusing on what are presumed to be facts about the story it is clear that the focus of this effort is not 99.99998% of Americans who have no connection to any terrorist group or their “charitable” fronts, but a very small fraction of the population – who may or may not be actual citizens – who have been noted calling/emailing or receiving calls/emails from people who we know to be terrorists.
Against a networked and technically savvy adversary those who are under the perception that we are on a slippery slope towards a police state feel that the FISA Court should be the appropriate venue for such activities; even though working a case through the FISA system is not necessarily a timely solution. Courts deal in “evidence” whereas intelligence work very often deals with data that would never meet courtroom standards. For lack of “proof” we would be denied the ability to thoroughly investigate potential terrorist in our midst (or sort innocent chaff from wheat).
To frame the argument that President Bush is justified in his actions because both Presidents Clinton and Carter also directed similar activities during their tenures is not only childish, but it misses the larger point: Searches without a warrant are completely legal and go on all the time.
Some less tangible but equally valid things to consider:
- The NSA has enough trouble going after targets and dealing with the mass of data it is supposed to deal with regularly, and yet we are supposed to presume that they can deal with a special and ad hoc solution in a completely effective manner?
- The deeply ingrained and almost pathological anathema towards snooping on American’s that NSA employees have (the Times article confirms as much).
- Despite recent efforts to break down walls and improve our ability to connect dots, intelligence work in support of the CT mission still involves the coordination of the work of multiple federal agencies; multiple bureaucracies, different cultures, and competing interests. Anyone who thinks getting the CIA, DIA, NSA, FBI, State and DHS to agree on anything doesn’t know much about the unglamorous reality of intelligence work.
The return of the Nixonion or Hooveresque days are highly unlikely for very practical reasons. What both sides of the argument over domestic “spying” should be concerned with is the fact that four years after 9/11 we are still trying to deal with terrorism with programmatic bubble-gum and legal 100 MPH tape. The solution may not be reverse-focused Echelon and it might not be the PATRIOT Act, but it most certainly is not the current patchwork of solutions the IC is forced to work with now.