Thursday, May 11, 2006

Government Phone Database

I wrote a different (but related) blog today on the Hayden nomination for the CIA. I thought it relevant to write about the fact that the Bush Administration had appointed a man to run the CIA who ran the secret warrantless wiretap program for President Bush. Then, today, I learn that this same man, General Hayden, also ran a program to collect all telephone records and put them into a massive database.

This database means that, if somebody in the government wants to know who you have been calling and when, it simply needs to type your phone number into a database, and they get a list.

They claim that they will only type in the phone numbers of terrorists into this list so, if you are not a terrorist, you have nothing to worry about. Well, a terrorist might have called you, but what is the chance of that happening? Or, a terrorist might have called a pizza place and asked for a pizza, shortly before or after you called that same pizza place and asked for a pizza.

Or maybe your banker, your lawyer, your best friend’s lawyer, because once the government traces the call from the terrorist to the lawyer, and then from the lawyer to your best friend, they have reason to start asking questions about who your best friend is talking to, and then asking about who you are talking to.

I read a lot of discussion on the issue, and did not want to simply repeat much of what I had read. One thing I found missing was a calm and rational explanation as to why allowing these types of infringements was a bad idea.

I have found that defenders of the Bush policy have relied primarily on one argument.

“The terrorists are trying to kill us. If these efforts can stop a terrorist from killing us, we should be grateful!”

What’s wrong with this argument? Why am I sitting here protesting the actions of a government that only has my best interests at heart?

There is no such thing as a government that has my best interests at heart – or yours. Governments are made up of people, and governments are instruments of force and violence. It would be nice if these instruments of force and violence never ended up in the hands of those who would abuse them, but they do. When they do, people suffer – in great numbers.

The more power that government has, the more useful it becomes to those who will sacrifice my interests for their benefit – the harder they will work to gain control of the government, and the more likely it will be that I (my nieces, nephews, their children, and the children of future generations) will be made to suffer and struggle for the benefit of a powerful elite.

I am not talking about a violent coup. I am talking about people with money and influence wielding the economic and social power that these tools give them to gain control of government. I am talking about people like Hitler who was able to convince the people to willingly give him absolute power – and what people like that do with power once they get it.

If the government has the power to tap our phones without a warrant, somebody out there thinks that this will be a very useful tool in their plan to promote their interests at our expense.

If the government has a database with all of our phone calls listed, there is somebody out there who thinks that this will be a useful tool for promoting their interests at our expense. In this case, the most use I can see of them making of this list is to identify their political enemies, who those enemies talk to, and then rounding up the whole lot of them in one grand sweep.

Of course, he will call these people ‘terrorists.’ He will claim that they were a threat to national security. He will assert that these tools were vital in exposing this treat so that he could act to protect the good people of this country. Future investigation may not be able to reveal any actual evidence of a threat (other than the fact that they opposed the leader’s policies), but by then it will be too late for such issues to matter.

Nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons are not the only weapons of mass destruction that exist. In fact, they are by far weaker than the weapons that have traditionally been used to threaten the lives, health, liberty, and property of common citizens.

The most destructive weapons of mass destruction ever wielded has been government authority, pushing people off of their land, enslaving them, and slaughtering those who refused to submit.

Consequently, I am much more concerned about the nonproliferation of unchecked government authority than anything that a group of thugs might do with nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.

If the government does not have these tools, then nobody will be seeking to use those tools to promote their interests at our expense. Of course, they could take control of government and create these tools, unless we are determined to protest those who would create these tools under any pretext.

I don’t want the terrorists to get a free hand. Terrorists are a threat, even though unlimited government power is a greater threat. If these tools are necessary, I want them treated the same way that governments treat other weapons of mass destruction. I want them locked up with safeguards in place that prevent people who might use these weapons for evil purposes from getting hold of them.

That is to say, I insist on a system of checks and balances. If the Executive Branch wants to spy on American citizens, I insist that they show their plans to somebody in the Judiciary Branch who has the power to say, “No. I see this as a plan to use government power against your political enemies more than a plan to find those who threaten the American people. Revise your plan, put in some safeguards, and I will reconsider it.”

I want a Legislative Branch that can pass a law that says, “You, the President, cannot cross this line,” without the President using a tool not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution to edit the law as he signs it, to make the law say whatever he wants it to say.

Incidentally, this is my main argument in favor of removing Saddam Hussein from power. I was very much in favor of seeing Saddam Hussein removed even when Clinton was in power – because I wanted the world to get the message that abuse of power will not be tolerated.

However, our government cannot deliver the message that abuse of power will not be tolerated when our government is engaging in torture, kidnapping, rendition, imprisonment without trial, war on false pretenses. My greatest objection to the Bush Administration’s pursuit of these policies is that it is telling every government in the world, now and in the future, that they can do these things as well. With abuse of government power being the greatest threat to people everywhere, we do not need a government promoting the philosophy that there is no such thing as an abuse of government power.

People tell me that Bush is only trying to find terrorists, that my life could be spared, and I should be grateful.

I answer that I do not believe that Bush is only trying to find terrorists. I am almost certain that an administration willing to do as much evil as this administration has done – that we know about – will not be able to resist the temptation to do more than just hunt terrorists.

I answer that, even if the laughable proposition that this administration can resist the temptation to abuse these powers for political and personal gain is true, there are other governments around the world, and future governments in the United States, who will almost certainly abuse the powers that this administration tells us the government should have.

Never in human history have common people been made more secure by a government given absolute power to do whatever it pleases to whomever it pleases. Somebody will come along eventually – if not in this election, then the next, or the next – who will put that power to use in ways that do not serve the public interest. The more power they have, the more harm they will do.

That is why I do not like the direction that the Bush Administration is taking us.


Anonymous said...

One thing I wonder about the illegal wiretapping scandal that I haven't seen addressed anywhere:

When the NSA denied security clearance to Justice Department investigators to block their investigation of the wiretapping that allegedly violated FISA (I think it's pretty clear that it *did* violate FISA, but technically that hasn't been decided by a court of competent jurisdiction, yet)...

Why weren't the NSA members responsible immediately charged with obstruction of justice? Aren't they plainly and obviously guilty of it? If withholding important evidence from a criminal investigation isn't obstruction of justice, what the hell is?

(Of course, the real answer is obvious: because the Justice Department works for Bush. But it'd be fun to see some pro-Bush talking heads try to talk their way out of why a blatant case of obstruction of a criminal investigation isn't being pursued.)

Good points about the dangerousness of unlimited government power, but I fear they will fall on deaf ears in this country. It's been so long since we had a real tyrant, most people have forgotten what it's like or think it can't happen here.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Well, Chris, there are a whole lot of ears out there -- enough that there must be a few that are not deaf. The task is to try to reach them.

In this post, I wanted to write somebody where somebody who knows of an ear or two that is not deaf can say, "Here is a forthright treatment of why a person concerned with security should neither accept nor allow this type of activity to continue."

I hope somebody can put it to good use.

The non-investigation of the warrantless wiretapping is something else I need to add to my list of abuses of power destroying our system of checks and balances. I fear that too few people are even aware of what happened.

Hume's Ghost said...

The DoJ is an advocate of the President assigned to investigate a program he authorized the NSA (another organization under his authority) to engage in. The NSA did not give investigators the clearance they would need to conduct the investigation, so it seems that it would take a court order to allow the investigator to conduct their inquiry.

But what are the chance the DoJ are going to bring this matter to court?

If Congress will not hold an inquiry then the only recourse is for the public to vote in a Congress that will.

Anonymous said...

I agree with almost everything you ever wrote so far except:

"I was very much in favor of seeing Saddam Hussein removed even when Clinton was in power – because I wanted the world to get the message that abuse of power will not be tolerated."

Well, removing a tyrant from power is a great thing to do, but there are good ways and bad ways of doing it.

Aiding an existing native opposition would be a good way. Armed invasion by an uninvited foreign nation would be an utterly terrible way.

What if a hypothetical, powerful UN initiated an international armed attack on US in order to remove Bush and his administration?

They could say their actions are in the best interest of American citizens and it would be a valid excuse. After all the examples are numerous:

Torture, rendition, warranties searches, racial and religious bigotry, vetoes disguised as signing statements, gerrymandering, the Florida election scandal, dismissing the division of power, faking science research etc. etc...

But I doubt you would like that, would you?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


When I say that I favor a particular outcome, I am never to be interpreted as saying that I support any and all means of obtaining that outcome.

Ultimately, it seems, you agree with everything I wrote and only disagree with something that you (falsely) thought I was saying.

There are better and worse ways to accomplish any objective and, by definition, the better ways should be selected over the worse.

I favor removing George Bush from power. I believe the 'better' way to do this would be for a Republican House and Senate to take action to impeach him and Cheney and to promote the speaker of the House (a Republican) to that position. For the Democrats to remove Bush and to establish a Democratic President would mire the issue in partisan politics. For the Republicans to do this would demonstrate that it is a matter of principle.

Failing that, a Democratic victory with impeachment and removal from office is a very weak second-best option.

I favored removing Saddam Hussein from power. Yet, I never favored Bush's invasion strategy because he accomplished the objective in, perhaps, the worst possible way. He lied about the reasons for war, worked unilaterally in a way that made the world suspicious of our motives, and had given no thought to what would happen after the war.

What would a good plan look like? It would first involve promoting international support for removing Saddam Hussein through intense international negotiations. Nothing would be done until there was a 'super majority' of civilized countries in support of a plan. That would have to include ways of controlling the sectarian violence.

One of the principles that I think a good plan to remove Saddam Hussein from power would have been a clear indication that the U.S. was not doing this for the oil -- by turning over management of the oil fields to an international body of which the United States was not a member. This would be done to show the world, "We do this out of principle, not for the oil."

Anonymous said...

The principle sounds good in theory Mr. Fyfe. But you have to remember that all justifications for war were, are and will be abused.
China 'liberated' Tibet from the tyranny of their aristocracy. Serbs attacked Croatia under the pretense of preventing a fascist regime coming to power...

Under the pretense of liberation from tyranny, the USA itself medaled in the internal affairs of so many nations since the end of WWII. USA was involved in nearly every war or coup in the last 50 years: Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Chile, Panama, Guatemala, Brazil, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Iran. Even Saddam and the Talibans were aided by the US when they were considered useful. (wikipedia resources)

No nation has the right to attack another nation, nor infringe on its internal affairs, unless attacked first or directly and unambiguously threatened, period.