Remind me to mention, over the phone, that I love Big Brother

First, I saw this this morning:

Verizon providing all call records to U.S. under court order

The National Security Agency appears to be collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of American customers of Verizon, one of the nation’s largest phone companies, under a top-secret court order issued in April.

The order appears to require a Verizon subsidiary to provide the NSA with daily information on all telephone calls by its customers within the United States and from foreign locations into the United States.

The order, which was signed by a judge from the secret court that oversees domestic surveillance, was first reported on the Web site of the Guardian newspaper. The Web site reproduced a copy of the order, which two former U.S. officials told The Washington Post appears to be authentic…

Then, later, I see that much of official Washington was scrambling to defend the NSA program:

The Obama administration and key U.S. lawmakers on Thursday defended a secret National Security Agency telephone surveillance program that one congressman said had helped avert a terrorist attack in recent years.

The program apparently has collected the telephone records of tens of millions of American customers of Verizon, one of the nation’s largest phone companies, under a top-secret court order.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the court order, issued in April, appears to be “the exact three-month renewal” of the program that has been underway for the past seven years. She said the program is “lawful.”…

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that the court order in question is a critical tool that allows the intelligence community to know when terrorists or suspected terrorists are engaging in dangerous activities. He says that’s particularly true for people located in the U.S.

He said the order doesn’t allow the government to listen in on calls, but only includes details like telephone numbers…

Which reminds me: Have I mentioned lately that I love Big Brother? I say it in front of the telescreen frequently. I guess I need to mention it over the phone…

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45 thoughts on “Remind me to mention, over the phone, that I love Big Brother

  1. Doug Ross

    ” She said the program is “lawful.”…” Of course it is. They make the laws that make it lawful. Doesn’t make it right.

    Wouldn’t it just be easier to come out and say “We are tracking every call made in the United States and every email and there’s nothing you can do about it?”

    1. Scout

      First time I read it, I thought she said “the program is awful.” Guess that made more cognitive sense to me.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    You left out the part where Feinstein says the program has been in place for seven years….unlike BHO

          1. Doug Ross

            Only partly… he isn’t the guy who ran for President in 2008. That guy was going to do everything he could do to fix the Bush failures. I’m thinking BHO will be summering at Kennebunkport this year.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            The problem, Doug, is that he got into office and realized those weren’t failures, and that he didn’t have any better ideas.

            The one big failure of the Bush administration with regard to national security was letting Iraq get out of control after toppling Saddam. Which had been corrected long before Obama was elected.

            Being in charge of this stuff is a lot harder than engaging in wishful thinking that your base likes to hear.

            I don’t say that to be critical of Obama. I think he understood a lot of this before he was elected. The only thing that really took him by surprise, I think, was that Gitmo was so hard to close. And he wasn’t alone in that. Remember, McCain wanted to close it, too.

            The thing is, the actual Barack Obama who was elected was different from the guy a lot of antiwar Democrats thought they were voting for. But I heard a pragmatist in the words he actually spoke during the campaign. Which was why, even though I preferred McCain, I was pretty satisfied to have Obama win (as I said many times that year, I saw that election as a win-win proposition).

            Obama had one big disagreement with Bush — Iraq. And we were on the way out of there anyway when he took office.

            As a candidate, he promised to get a lot more aggressive than Bush had been in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He did. Being the Democrat beloved of antiwar folk gave him all sorts of latitude to operate that Bush did not have. Sort of like Nixon being the guy who could go to China and get away with it.

          3. Brad Warthen Post author

            Actually, now that I look back, that column didn’t get into any detail about what Obama had said. Here’s what I was referring to:

            Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama issued a pointed warning yesterday to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, saying that as president he would be prepared to order U.S. troops into that country unilaterally if it failed to act on its own against Islamic extremists.

  3. Doug Ross

    And our number one defender against evil has checked in:

    ““We are very much under threat,” Lindsey Graham said on “Fox & Friends,” adding that he is a customer of Verizon, the communications company ordered to turn over the records to the government. “Radical Islam is on the rise throughout the region. Homegrown terrorism is one of my biggest concerns. It is happening in our own backyard, and I am glad that NSA is trying to find out what terrorists are up to overseas and inside the country.””

    Please, please, please.. someone with some sense replace this Chicken Little pawn of the defense industry in 2014. I’m begging you, Phillip.

  4. Phillip

    Thanks, Doug, but too many skeletons in my closet. Plus, think of the money AIPAC would sink into defeating me.

    But, Brad, going back to that thread of a few posts ago regarding the extent to which “fear” (perhaps the word “anxiety” is more appropriate) has significantly altered the country since 9/11…let’s put aside the argument over whether this surveillance program is good or not, legal or not. Can there be any question that we have, as a nation, undergone some truly profound changes to the relationship between private citizen and the government since 9/11? Are these changes appropriate for a threat that does not rise to the level of an existential threat or a truly serious military threat to the United States?

    If these changes are appropriate because we are in a “war on terror,” then can people like Lindsey Graham (or you, Brad, for that matter) just bluntly tell us: “Yes, since the danger of a terrorist attack, sometime, somewhere, can never be completely eliminated, we must concede that we will be at war in perpetuity, that this nation can never again consider itself a nation at peace, and so we must make concessions in terms of civil liberties to that perpetual state of wartime readiness.” But we never hear that. That’s what I mean about the desire for our leaders to speak to us as adults. Instead, the only appeal is to our sense of anxiety/fear. That’s why I felt that Obama’s speech (and yes, I concede the contradictions and hypocrisy of his actions vis-a-vis those words) at least began the conversation/debate that should really be A1 in our national discourse.

    Rep. Mike Rogers defends this program by saying, “but see, it stopped a terrorist attack.” Well, we don’t know which one, how heinous the plot was, but in a way that’s beside the point. Again, without at this moment defending or attacking the surveillance program, we need to continually debate as a nation the tradeoffs between erosion of civil liberties and terrorist threat. What are the limits on what we would approve, if we could believe that it could truly stop all terrorist attacks? And is that ever a realistic expectation?

    In a nation where consumption has really replaced citizenry as a sort of prerequisite of Americanness, the very nebulous and elusive argument against this kind of chipping away at civil liberties will always get trumped by the demagogic “we’re all gonna die it’s the biggest threat in American history be very scared” hysteria of the Grahams out there. The one consolation is that the struggle against this can bring together people of very different polltical ideologies. Just look at me and Doug.

    1. bud

      Phillip have your ever considered writing commentary in a major publication as a full-time profession? Your words resonate.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, but you and Doug have never truly loved Big Brother the way I do.

      I can’t honestly say, “Yes, since the danger of a terrorist attack, sometime, somewhere, can never be completely eliminated, we must concede that we will be at war in perpetuity, that this nation can never again consider itself a nation at peace, and so we must make concessions in terms of civil liberties to that perpetual state of wartime readiness.”

      And that’s because the time frame isn’t “never.” It’s just farther off than any of us would like it to be.

      Very large-scale trends across large swathes of the world have to change. (Which was why I was for hastening the change with the invasion of Iraq, toppling at least one problematic regime in the region. But let’s not get into that.) That involves lots of thing happening, especially in those countries that have the conditions that foster terrorism. Vast political change must occur (which we’re seeing, but the jury is still out on whether the Arab Spring will be good or bad in the long run — most likely, both), along with fundamental economic and cultural changes.

      All sorts of rifts and conflicts have to be healed, such as the Israeli-Palestinian one, which inspires so much of the other trouble.

      Some of these things we can affect. Some we cannot, at least not directly. In case after case, the lightbulb will have to want to change. In many cases, the lightbulb does want to change, but there are thugs (often, the people running the country) standing in the way. Sometimes we can do something about that; sometimes we can’t.

      Things may get worse before they get better. But the world WILL change. These conditions did not exist 100 years ago. They probably won’t exist 100 years from now.

      But yeah, as long as these conditions exist, and terrorists spring up out of the soil here, there and everywhere, we will need precautions in place — precautions we don’t like — to limit the damage. Not because we’re afraid, but because it would be stupid not to take such precautions, and save as many lives as we can.

      No one can set a deadline for any of this. Certainly not us. Not even al Qaeda can, because they are but one terrorist organization.

      What we’re dealing with is a diverse set of people who are at war with modernity, with secularism, with pluralism, and various other things that we sort of stand as the symbol of. And their tactics involve taking advantage of the weaknesses we have because we ARE a free and open society.

      Sure, we can preserve everyone’s privacy and reduce security measures at airports, not monitor telecommunications, etc. And we’ll feel better about who we are. But of course, those who wish to blow up a plane or plot a massacre at some public gathering will take advantage of that. They’d be stupid not to.

      It’s a hell of a situation to be in. And I’m really sorry that lots of folks are getting impatient and wanting us to unilaterally call this whole mess off . But that’s not really within our power.

      As I’ve said before, I tend to look at these things in a rather distant, cold-blooded way. I’ve never felt fear of terrorism. But if I’m one of the people in charge of this country (and since we live in a republic, I sort of am), I have a responsibility to advocate policies that will keep other Americans safe, while doing all I can to accomplish that without excessive curtailment of the liberties we cherish.

      I can see that it’s not a simple equation with simple choices.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        All of these things — airport precautions, monitoring telecommunications, etc. — are about playing defense. You don’t ever achieve a “victory” in such an endeavor. You just keep doing it until people stop trying to blow you up.

        If there’s anything you can do proactively — working to improve conditions in other countries, encouraging the emergence of moderate, liberal regimes wherever possible — you should do it. But those opportunities come when they come. And in the meantime, you keep playing tenacious D.

        There just is no timetable.

        1. Doug Ross

          Airport precautions are a smokescreen to keep the fear in public view. There won’t be another 9/11 – and its not because of the TSA. It’s because they lock the cockpit doors now.

        2. Phillip

          “You just keep doing it until people stop trying to blow you up.” Well, if you are the primary superpower on earth, there’ll always be somebody trying to blow up some of your citizens. If you’re goal is no terrorist attacks ever, that’s not a long-scale time frame, that’s a “never” time frame. You’re basically saying the AUMF, Patriot Act, and a profoundly transformed society are permanent legacies of those 20 guys with box cutters. (“Mission Accomplished” indeed!) Terrorist attacks against Americans goes back a long ways before 9/11, and I’m not even counting domestic sources of terrorism.

          On the other hand, you are now using words like “precautions” and “playing defense” and about not “not ever achieving victory.” That is common ground on which Americans can all come together, but that’s very different from being on a “war footing”. It may all seem as if it’s a silly battle over semantics, this business of being “at war” or not; but it is far more than that, because the mechanisms that can be triggered by being on a war footing (Patriot Act, AUMF, etc) go to the very heart of who and what we are as a nation.

          You say that you “can see that it’s not a simple equation with simple choices” but in the same post you write of people wishing to “unilaterally call this whole mess off,” when you know nobody is calling for that. What people are calling for is for us to be vigilant and do what we can to protect ourselves reasonably, without turning our principles inside out to do so, and also while recognizing that “the weaknesses we have because we ARE a free and open society” (I prefer the term “vulnerabilities”) ensure that we cannot ever achieve 100% protection from terrorist attack.

          In the end I fear it’s all about politics: the day will likely come when America does suffer another terrorist attack on a fairly large-scale again, and the reaction to that will be a backlash against the party in power so severe and so fear-based that one-party rule may prevail for a generation to come afterwards. Both Democrats and Republicans are terrified of being the ones left standing in this game of musical chairs, where that terrorist attack is the event that “stops the music.”

          1. Mark Stewart

            Well said. Phillip. The erosion of our national principals is mostly about the fear which has been growning in politics.

            The politics of fear has never had a happy ending.

            If the allegations against the NSA and the FBI are true, we have reached a tipping point where the government will find itself operating not only in fear, but also on the defensive.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            A couple of points…

            One, when you say, “you know nobody is calling for that,” I have to protest that I don’t know that. Over the past 10 years I’ve heard a lot of people use language that indicates a belief that we can unilaterally end the conflict. For instance, practically everyone who was eager for us to get out of Iraq kept using the construction “end the war.” Even today, you hear them say, “Obama ended the war in Iraq” (which is silly on multiple levels, such as the fact that he simply continued the process of withdrawal that Bush had begun). Well, to the extent that there was a “war” in Iraq after Saddam’s army was defeated, it was going to continue whether we were there or not. There is this unfortunate confusion that I hear time and again in the words chosen by people who oppose military engagement; they seem to think that the only thing that keeps a state of war going is whether WE are sending troops into the fray. (And sometimes a hint of “It’s all our fault anyway” is included in that — if only the big, mean, U.S. would stop shooting, all the peace-loving peoples of the world would return to their plows.)

            Also, you say: “What people are calling for is for us to be vigilant and do what we can to protect ourselves reasonably, without turning our principles inside out to do so…”

            That’s exactly what I want. I want us “to be vigilant and do what we can to protect ourselves reasonably,” which I think we’ve been doing. And none of my principles, or the ones upon which this nation was founded (and that’s a period I studied rather extensively in school; I have a pretty good grasp of what the Founders were on about), have been turned inside-out.

      2. David

        What we’re dealing with is a diverse set of people who are at war with modernity, with secularism, with pluralism, and various other things that we sort of stand as the symbol of.

        They hate us for our freedoms!

    1. Doug Ross

      That last name would work in his favor in South Carolina…

      Phillip Bush, the illegitimate son of George H.W. Bush and Liberace… that would attract conservatives AND liberals.

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    I will say that at least they got a court order. Warrantless searches are far more problematic.

  6. bud

    Kathryn, maybe a court order is better than a warrantless system but I’m not convinced the court provides a sufficient buffer between our rights and the prying eyes of the government. It’s just to easy to find a willing court to furnish an order.

  7. Silence

    What nobody’s really talked about, as far as I know, is that not only is the NSA getting the records of phone calls, but they actually RECORD ALL THE PHONE CALLS. The actual audio of the calls is stored in a massive data center out in Utah, and if the intelligence community has a need to listen to the content, they can.

  8. Mark Stewart

    I think the simple answer is to say that if the NSA is in possession of all the data, which I would assume then includes all texts sent as well, that the agency is in fact guilty of having stored and viewed teenage sexting and naked/sexual photos and should therefore be declared a pedophile and placed on the national sex offender registry.

    Seems like the appropriate outcome…

  9. Doug Ross

    I think it would be in the President’s best interest to release all the details of the alleged terrorist plot that was foiled by having access to all this data. Prove to the American public that this is a valuable effort that saves lives. They’ve been doing it for years.. surely they could declassify something from several years ago.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I think you’re right that it would be helpful politically.

      But as to whether something could safely be declassified — maybe so; maybe not. It might be that there are no situations that a) Clearly demonstrate that this program was what prevented the attack, and b) doesn’t give away our capabilities in this regard, and therefore give away an advantage we have in preventing such attacks. In fact, a) and b) are sort of contradictory goals, on the face of them. But maybe a case could be found; I don’t have enough information to know.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Note that I say it would be helpful politically. In other ways, not so much. For instance, if you believe that this is unconstitutional, and regard that as the highest consideration, the fact that it prevented an attack isn’t going to make you like the program any better.

  10. Scout

    On the Radio today, David Brooks assessment was more in line with the Slate analysis – that’s its a measured monitored thing and not invasive or treading on the 4th ammendment. But is Silence right that they get the audio of the calls too – because that’s not what I’ve heard. My understanding is it’s just the metadata – phone numbers you’ve called, and durations of the calls. (in which case, Big Brother *shouldn’t* hear you flattering him).

    1. Silence

      I am right, but they’d like to keep it secret that they archive the actual contents. Once they have cause or suspicion, they get a warrant and listen to the audio.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        If they have to get a warrant, how is that more intrusive than has always been the case? Okay, they have archives, but I just cannot get worked up.

        Today’s paper had a stupid assertion about how since 9/11 we have had to give lots of privacy in many areas such as emails. Folks, you never had privacy in emails. That is Prof. Fenner’s first principle of network security!

        1. Mark Stewart

          Well, this being America, most people have expectations of privacy.

          I think that this is a core value which the government ignores at its peril. We have had a number of these overreaches the last few years. They are very troubling, and very un-American.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Not sure ignorance is the same thing as a reasonable expectation of privacy. The authorities have always had the right to tap your calls with a warrant. Here, they can tap the archive of your calls with a warrant. The fact of your call or the person whom you called is all that was collected and analyzed, again, with a warrant.

            Your email is not secure. It just isn’t. Even if you expect it to be.

            Same thing with the people who leave valuables, like purses, in vehicles at sporting places. We all pay for the losses the banks incur from the felony lane gangs. I never leave my purse in the car. No one should. It is not reasonable to do so.

          2. Doug Ross

            “Your email is not secure. It just isn’t. Even if you expect it to be.”

            There is a big difference between an employer having access to your emails and the government having access. Your relationship with your employer is a private contract. Government access should be only in situations of probably cause.

  11. Kathryn Fenner

    And, outside the “Patriot Act,” pc is exactly what a judge requires to issue a warrant. And rightly so.

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