Monday, January 15, 2007

Bush Spying: Mail and Bank Records

I want to start this post with two primary claims.

(1) It is surprising, really, how easy it is for politicians to put into place all of the mechanisms for a police state sufficient to make any would-be dictator drool without a word of protest from a population raised to value freedom and oppose tyranny.

(2) It is not so surprising that those people who claimed that atheists must be kept out of political power and lack the moral foundation that would prevent a good Christian from setting up such mechanisms are those who are primarily responsible for setting up these mechanisms.

We have grown so accustomed to news that the Executive Branch of the Government claims a right to look into every aspect of our lives to judge our loyalty to the State that news articles are substantially ignored.

A year ago, we were protesting the government listening in on our telephone calls, snooping through our emails, and creating watch lists of organizations who spoke against the President’s war in Iraq. These generated some moderate level of outrage. I wrote at the time that these are only the violations we know about. I asked about what the Bush Administration was doing that we had not yet learned.

In the last few weeks, we learned that Bush claims the right to open your mail without a warrant. He wrote this into a signing statement – the type of unconstitutional power that the President claimed to rewrite legislation he does not like, and to give himself whatever powers it pleases him to have.

More recently, the New York Times reported that Bush has authorized the Pentagon and CIA to spy on Americans by collecting our bank records – again, without a court order or Congressional oversite.

Of course, government officials are claiming that they are only looking at the mail and examining the bank records of ‘suspected terrorists’.

Yet, these are people who also claim that, “If you are not with us, then you are with the terrorists.” In other words, if you are not a supporter of the Bush Administration, then you qualify as a ‘suspected terrorist’ in the eyes of this administration. This means that the Executive Office can claim an unrestricted right to example your phone records, bank records, email, and physical mail.

Once again we encounter the argument that any opposition will hinder the President’s personal task to keep us safe from terrorist attacks. Liars and propagandists will claim that those who oppose these policies want to give terrorists a free pass. Again, it becomes necessary to assert that the liars are lying; that protesters are not seeking to prevent the government from spying on terrorists – but to make sure that the government is spying on terrorists.

There are two counter-concerns.

(1) Who is going to protect us from the President?

The greatest source of harm to the people of any country has never been “terrorists” but its own government.

Our society today is filled with people who would love the opportunity to take over the government and to control the vast military and economic power that this country holds, and to throw it around for his own pleasure, ruthlessly eliminating anybody who gets in his way.

The best protection that we have instrument we have against such an individual is that, even if he can con us into electing him President, he does not have the power to establish a tyranny. He does not have the tools he would need to pull off such a coup, because the Constitution does not allow him to have those powers. It has taken those powers and split them up, creating a system of checks and balances, so that the would-be tyrant in any body must deal with those in the other two estates.

As long as this system is intact, and as long as the American people are willing to defend it, any would-be tyrant is simply out of luck when it comes to becoming a dictator. The people are going to insist that his plans meet the approval of the other estates, and that is simply not a situation that a would-be tyrant is going to find appealing. He wants a country where the occupant of one of the branches of the government can do whatever it wants, without asking permission of the other branches. Or, he could accept a requirement to appeal to another branch, as long as he has the authority to tell the members of that other branch what its response will be.

For 225 years, would-be tyrants saw nothing that would appeal to them in the Executive branch of the United States. The power to spy on others is extremely useful. It can provide the raw material for blackmail or for seeing to it that others are removed from power by ‘leaking’ damaging information. However, our government said that would-be tyrants had to prove to a judge that they had probable cause before they spied on others. Without this, the judicial branch had good reason to assume that the Executive Branch was after something other than national security, and prohibit the Executive Branch from getting a hold of that information.

No would-be tyrant could stand such a system. If only somebody would change the system, allowing the President to act without appealing to the other two branches, then it would be a position that would tempt some would-be tyrant. For this, we need a President who asserts that he has the right to spy on who he wishes with no warrant, with no Congressional approval, with nothing but his desire to find out information about a person to guide his actions. Once this happens, then a would-be tyrant has a reason to want to become President. Until then, it is not worth the bother.

To defend ourselves from these people, we must condemn and prohibit any President from changing our form of government into one where the Executive has dictatorial powers. Even if this President promises to be a benevolent dictator and to use his limitless authority only for good, this President will not be President forever.

(2) How is the President using this evidence?

Six years of watching this President has given us a good look at how he thinks. Typically, he follows a three-step process.

Step 1: Embrace a hypothesis. This could be any hypothesis, such as the claim that what makes money for oil companies could not possibly cause harm to others, that removing Saddam Hussein would be fast, easy, and cheap and set the stage for the democratization of the Middle East, that God created the heavens and the earth 6,000 years ago, that there was no such thing as Evolution, that Saddam Hussein aided the 9/11 terrorists and was building weapons of mass destruction to use on the United States.

Step 2: Examine the evidence.

Step 3: Selectively keep and throw out sections of the evidence, rewrite others, and reinterpret the rest to support the embraced conclusion.

Let us apply this to the President’s power to spy.

First, he forms they hypothesis that an individual is a friend of terrorists. This could come from a number of sources – conscious and unconscious. One of those sources may simply be a hatred for somebody and a desire to remove them from a position of power (and replace him with somebody more friendly).

Second, he collects the evidence, using these powers to listen in to phone calls, collect phone records, collect bank records, read the mail, and intercept the emails of the person.

Now, here, we must remember that the President can do this for anybody he ‘suspects’ of being friendly to terrorists, without justifying to anybody else why he ‘suspects’ this person. So, if he suspects a political rival, he now has access to the private communications of a political rival based on the convenience of ‘suspecting’ that the individual was associated with terrorists.

Third, he sifts through the evidence, keeping that which appears to support his hypothesis, throwing out that which does not, and reinterpreting the rest so that he now has ‘proof’ that the accused is guilty.

This is precisely what happened with respect to the invasion of Iraq.

The Bush Administration formed the hypothesis that Saddam Hussein aided the 9/11 hijackers and were building weapons of mass destruction with which to attack the United States. It collected the evidence. It then kept what supported its hypothesis, threw out anything that contradicted their hypothesis, and reinterpreted the rest. It then took this as “proof” that Saddam Hussein was guilty, and launched a war.

Elsewhere, it is a very good bet that some of the people that the Bush Administration has locked up in its secret prisons were “guilty” of terrorism in the same way that Saddam Hussein was “guilty” of supporting the 9/11 terrorists and building weapons of mass destruction.

Scientists and scholars know that this type of mistake – cherry picking data and reinterpreting events to support a favored hypothesis – are very human tendencies and very unreliable. To combat these, scientists have adopted a number of procedures to remove the possibility of human error. It uses “double-blind” experiments and insists on using people to collect the data who do not know what conclusions the person wanting the data is seeking to support, and gives the data to educated third partied with no particular stake in the outcome for an impartial review.

Modern courts were also invented by people who understood these weaknesses and sought institutions that promoted justice over prejudice – that promoted a rule of law over the rule of men (or of a man).

Intelligent and wise people know human frailties and human failures and design their institutions to protect us from these sources of error. Fools ignore these human limitations and design institutions to suit their whim. The fool leads us into error, the way George Bush lead us into this war in Iraq.

I hold that it is significant that President Bush and almost all of his inner circle were trained for this type of backward thinking. Their religion tells them that wisdom is gained through a three step process.

Step 1: Embrace the Bible as literally true.

Step 2: Look at the evidence for and against scripture.

Step 3: Accept the evidence supporting scripture as sound, reject all that contradicts the Bible, and reinterpret the rest so that it fits into one’s religious view, and assert that this is proof that the Bible is correct.

It is a recipe for error, and is as poor a system for determining who is and who is not a “suspected terrorist” as it is in determining the wisdom of invading Iraq.


There is more at issue here than the question of whether the government will open some envelopes. What is at issue is devotion to institutions that protect civilization itself from human failings. Destroy those institutions that protect us from human failings, and we risk suffering far more than any terrorist could cause us to suffer.

One of the institutions that protect us from human failures – a human lust for absolute power and to “play” with it to the detriment of everybody else – is the institution of separation of powers. It is an institution that demands that the Executive must present its findings to some other branch to make sure that when it claims to be protecting the nation from terrorist attacks that it is not, instead, protecting the power elite from political opponents.

Courts protect us in another way – by eliminating bias in the interpretation of evidence so as to make sure that it actually supports the conclusion that the agent claims that it supports. People have an annoying habit of seeing what they want to see in the evidence, and only those who do not care which story is true – who cares only about the truth – can be trusted to interpret the evidence soundly and avoid costly errors.

Only a fool would throw these institutions away and trust, instead, to the whim of a person who has such a proven inability to use evidence to come to reasoned conclusion as Bush has demonstrated.

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