Saturday, January 07, 2006

Spy vs. Spy You

By and large I haven't had much new to say about the NSA wiretap controversy. Basically, it's a mess - both legally and politically - and still very much in its infancy.

However, if I may, I'd like to draw your attention to Frank Rich's most recent column in the New York Times. Rich asks a question that I'd like to hear answered: Just who did we think we were fooling by keeping the NSA wiretaps secret?
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Rich writes thusly:
If fictional terrorists concocted by Hollywood can figure out that the National Security Agency is listening to their every call, guess what? Real-life terrorists know this, too. So when a hyperventilating President Bush rants that the exposure of his warrant-free wiretapping in a newspaper is shameful and puts "our citizens at risk" by revealing our espionage playbook, you have to wonder what he is really trying to hide. Our enemies, as America has learned the hard way, are not morons. Even if Al Qaeda hasn't seen "Sleeper Cell" because it refuses to spring for pay cable, it has surely assumed from the get-go that the White House would ignore legal restraints on eavesdropping, just as it has on detainee jurisprudence and torture.
That's a very good point. Maybe there are (or were) terrorists out there that believe their communications to be safe. But do we really think that's because they thought that the government, though it had the capability to monitor their communiqu├ęs, was refraining from doing so because it was illegal?

As Rich points out, that's a bit of stretch. Actually, it's not even a stretch, it's utterly unbelievable.

So why the secrecy of the NSA wiretaps? Rich has his own list of theories which is far from exhaustive. While he suggests that the wiretaps might have been put in place to "eavesdrop on American journalists and political opponents" he ignores what strikes me as one of the most likely explanations: the administration and the NSA thought they needed the wiretaps to monitor terrorist activity, but didn't think they could get the courts and the congress to authorize it. In many respects that scenario fits most closely with an administration's behavior since 9/11.

Regardless, we're unlikely to ever know the real motive behind the NSA wiretaps. But the purported secrecy rationale - that to conduct the wiretaps openly would have tipped off the terrorists - is an absolute joke.

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