Thursday, January 12, 2006

Wiretaps, Polls, and Asking the Right Question

"Do you think the Bush administration was right or wrong in wiretapping [conversations between U.S. citizens living in the United States and suspected terrorists living in other countries] without obtaining a court order?"

According to a CNN/Gallop Poll, this defines the issue at stake regarding Bush's decision to authorize the National Security Agency to listen in on phone-calls made by Americans to people overseas.

This is also the way the Bush administration wants to spin the question. This is what we hear from the talking heads whose sole purpose is to manipulate (deceive) public opinion in favor of this administration. We find them repeating, without end, that wiretaps are a useful way of keeping America safe.

Of course they are. Nobody disputes that.

The problem is, "Are we sure that the President is only wiretapping conversations between Americans and potential terrorists?" There is no judicial oversite. Bush has asserted the right to spy on whomever he wants. Bush is telling us that these are the only conversations he is interecepting. However, without judicial oversight, how do we know?

The Real Question

Here is the real issue? Should the Bush Administration be allowed to set up an agency for spying on Americans that has absolutely no oversight -- one where the Judiciary and the Legislative branches have no say in the matter?

We would expect a judiciary branch to grant Bush the authority to wiretap when it is reasonable to do so. In fact, we would demand it. If the Judiciary asserted that this was illegal, we would expect the Legislature to make a change.

The reason for demanding that the judiciary branch look over Bush's shoulder is not to keep him from tapping the wires of suspected terrorists. It is to keep him from tapping the wires of organizations who may be supporting his political opponents, or tapping the wires to collect information for his campaign contributors.

Wiretapping Without a Warrant

An Associated Press/Ipsos poll describes the issue as:

Should the Bush administration be required to get a warrant from a judge before monitoring phone and internet communications between American citizens in the United States and suspected terrorists, or should the government be allowed to monitor such communications without a warrant?

Again, this is a gross misrepresentation of the real issue.

Today, agents do not need to get a warrant before spying on somebody. They can start right away. They have 72 hours to get a warrant, but they are not sitting on their hands while they wait. That would be stupid.

That is what is wrong with these types of poll questions. They make people on one side of the issue seem like idiots.

The Harm

What harm is done with a poorly worded question?

The first problem is that news organizations who cannot or will not express the issue competently are contributing to confusion and misinformation.

The second problem is that these poorly phrased questions make decent people look like idiots. They give the appearance that those opposed to Bush's program are demanding that federal agents sit on their hands while whistling a mournful tune, while terrorists buy, sell, ship, and plant weapons of mass destruction.

Nobody is demanding that agents sit on their hands. People are demanding that some measure of protection be in place to make sure that Bush does not use this power for political purposes. We want somebody to ask the question, "Are you spying on America's enemies, or does your spying also include opponents of the Imperial Republican Dynasty?"

For years, Bush said that all wiretaps in America required a court order. While the ink was still drying on an executive order authorizing warrantless wiretaps, he was standing in front of cameras telling us that the Constitution prohibited him from authorizing warrantless wiretaps.

Now he stands in front of cameras telling us that he only uses warrantless wiretaps on those suspected of talking to terrorists.

Why should we believe him?

The Pentagon keeps a database of organizations that speaks up against the war. A quaker organization in Florida can be considered a threat. The President has said, “Anybody who is not for me, is against me." A touch of ego is all it takes to turn this into, "Anybody who is not for me, is against America.”

Who is Bush really spying on, and how do we know?

These are the issues that speak to the demand for judicial oversight. These are the types of issues that the political polls should be speaking to.

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