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Leak response creates hysteria
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Let's get halfway serious about this National Security Agency business. First, where has everybody been since 2006, when USA Today first revealed the existence of large-scale NSA telephone data mining? That was objectionable in two big ways: The Bush White House acted unilaterally, without the court supervision required by law, and it was also indulging in warrantless wiretaps.
Congress fixed that in 2008, permitting statistical analysis of telephone traffic, but requiring both ongoing FISA Court oversight and search warrants for actual eavesdropping. After his customary tap-dancing, Sen. Barack Obama supported the bill. Hearing no announcement the Obama White House had canceled the program, a person would have to be awfully naive to imagine the NSA had gone out of business.
The court order produced with a great flourish by Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian mainly confirmed the system appears to be working as designed. So why the hyperventilating? The way some people are carrying on, you'd think the KGB or East German Stasi had set up shop in the White House.
Greenwald himself rather specializes in hyperventilation. Maybe it's just me, but I wouldn't have taken Edward Snowden (or any single source) at face value. There are plenty of clues even in The Guardian hagiography that not everything may be exactly as it seems. Running to China seeking freedom? China?
Then there's this: Any NSA analyst "at any time can target anyone, any selector, anywhere," Snowden said. "I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email."
Now me, I don't think any NSA computer tech can wiretap a federal judge any more than I think a bank teller can transfer the judge's bank account to her boyfriend without getting caught. Sure enough, Robert Deitz, a former CIA and NSA lawyer, told the Los Angeles Times the claim was "complete and utter" falsehood.
"First of all it's illegal," he said. "There is enormous oversight. They have keystroke auditing. There are, from time to time, cases in which some analyst is angry at his ex-wife and looks at the wrong thing and he is caught and fired."
Fourth Amendment purists are living in a dream world. If you want government to have any chance to prevent mass-casualty terror attacks, surrendering raw phone data isn't much of a concession. Besides, there are far more efficient ways of targeting enemies of the state than trying to make something of who they've talked to on the phone.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons can be reached at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.