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Jul 24 2008

The Unintended Consequences of Unchecked Warrantless Wiretapping

Kevin Drum has an answer for all of those who dismiss the dangers of the government’s dramatic new warrantless wiretapping powers by believing the same government that brought us torture, unending war in Iraq, unprecidented levels of secrecy and lawlessness, and a slew of politically-motivated hirings, firings and prosecutions will nevertheless confine themselves to only listening in on the terrorists.

Let’s jump out on a very long, thin limb here and say this were so. The FISA law would still be a bad idea. Kevin knows why:


Former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges explains how the new FISA legislation will handcuff him and his colleagues:


This law will cripple the work of those of us who as reporters communicate regularly with people overseas, especially those in the Middle East. It will intimidate dissidents, human rights activists and courageous officials who seek to expose the lies of our government or governments allied with ours.

….The reach of such surveillance has already hampered my work. I was once told about a showdown between a U.S. warship and the Iranian navy that had the potential to escalate into a military conflict. I contacted someone who was on the ship at the time of the alleged incident and who reportedly had photos. His first question was whether my phone and e-mails were being monitored.

What could I say? How could I know? I offered to travel to see him but, frightened of retribution, he refused. I do not know if the man’s story is true. I only know that the fear of surveillance made it impossible for me to determine its veracity.

We rely on our reporters far too much to have them crippled like this. Think about it. What’s going to happen if the few reporters left who actually investigate and report facts can’t do it because their sources are too terrified to talk to them? How the fuck can we possibly stay informed enough of important world events to be able to make the critical decision as to who we vote into government to handle this stuff?

Not worried enough? Kevin has more:


Second, reporters who cover terrorism and the Middle East are pretty obvious targets for NSA surveillance since they talk to lots of bad guys. This surveillance is illegal, of course, and under the old FISA law it was hard to get around this because the FISA court had to issue a warrant if NSA wanted to tap the phone of an American citizen. But now? They don’t need to directly tap reporters’ phones. They’re listening to every piece of traffic that goes through American switches and NSA computer software is picking out everything that seems interesting — and no matter what they say, doesn’t it seem likely that their algorithms are going to be tweaked to (accidentally! unintentionally!) pick up an awful lot of reporter chatter? It’ll eventually be “minimized,” but algorithms are infinitely malleable, they’re hard for laymen to understand, and they can almost certainly be changed to accomplish the same thing if a judge happens to order modifications. What’s more, it hardly matters: the new law allows NSA to hold on to all those minimized conversations forever even if a judge eventually decides the surveillance was illegal.

I’ve highlighted the bits that should make you sweat. Remember that the government has a history of listening in on the conversations of people they don’t like. Remember that they could decide very quickly that they don’t like you. There’s no way now for you to be assured they have to have probable cause to tap you. There’s nothing standing between you and the curious ears of a federal agent, where there used to be a Fourth Amendment requirement for a warrant.

Laws like this are slippery slopes. They’ve justified it by saying they need it to fight terrorism. Tomorrow, it could be expanded to fight drugs. The day after that, financial crimes. The next week, they need it to chase down criminals who may have fled across international borders. The week after that, it’s subversive political groups that might turn violent. The following month….

And the thing is, all of those steps will sound reasonable. If you focus on the reasons you’re given for taking the next step, the next, the next, and never look up to see where you’re going, you’ll end up in a world where your government can tap you at any time, for the flimsiest reasons, and then use anything they hear against you, no matter how illegal it was for them to collect it, no matter if your only “crime” was being active with a political group the government didn’t like. After all, there are other slippery slopes that lead to opposition groups being painted with brushes broad enough to make them the same color as the terrorists or other undesirables.

That’s why I won’t let this FISA thing go. Neither should you. Even if you’re the government’s BFF right now and think you have nothing to fear, the next government may think you’re the devil incarnate and go after you.

They now have all the tools they need to do so.

The Fourth Amendment used to give you some protection. Might be a very good idea to restore it to its former glory, or we can expect more stories of unintended consequences. The next one just might be you.

Become a StrangeBedfellow and Hold Washington Accountable!

2 comments

  1. 1
    Efrique

    Hey Dana,Did you see this?

  2. 2
    Dana Hunter

    I did not. Thank you very much.How many days left of this asscrunch again? GARGH!

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