I’ve been transported once again in my sleep by aliens to a far, far distance universe. I wanna come home!
It all started innocently enough.
You know me, speak first, think later. It’s been a lifelong methodology for me. Being nimble of mind, I usually can wriggle myself into some sort of explanatory pose without looking the complete fool. (Some would say–my no-named detractors, all noted I might add for an inability to add 2 + 2 and get 4 regularly, where was I? Oh yes, my detractors might claim I’m a complete fool all the time, but of course they are wrong).
Yesterday, in view of the revelations of one Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian, I was pretty down on the President. I’m not, and never have been a Patriot Act fan, neither liking the term patriot, which seems always used by those who really aren’t, nor liking the flag-waving exceptionalism it tends to signify. Therefore hearing that the Obama Administration has continued a policy of sorting through my telephone calls gave me reason to lament his policy, all the while suggesting that the GOP in general would have a tough time railing against something they wrote (the Patriot Act) and passed on several times already under President Bushy. I also noted that of course faux news groups like Fox would forget all that history, and condemn their favorite whipping boy with nary a dropped beat.
So, then I actually learned what this is all about.
And I’m not nearly so upset as I was, since facts have a weird ability to actually turn wild speculative gut reactions into calm reasoned understanding of truth.
Okay, so let’s review. Under Bush, the government started this data mining process of collecting phone records. It began the process in around 2002, and without authorization from the FISA court which had been started in 1978. They were proceeding without court authority. This monitoring was done to foreign persons and American citizens.
Sometime around 2006, FISA was brought into the mix and the program continued to the present albeit with FISA oversight procedures in place. Congress regularly is called upon to renew the government’s ability to proceed, and so far it has. In fact Senator Diane Feinstein indicated that the issue of data mining of phone records has been debated by her committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee, no fewer than twelve times. Ultra conservative Senator Lindsey Graham also suggested that he was not at all troubled by the “revelations” announced and that he found there was “nothing to worry about.” Ditto Republican Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
Of course, the fact that it started under Bush is not some imprimatur upon the practice to be sure. In fact it might be close to the opposite. But it behooves us to look at what the practice actually entails before we condemn it as government overreach, no matter how legal it may be–and no one suggests it was illegal.
What goes on here is called metadata mining.
Metadata, essentially, is data about data. Data mining programs use computer algorithms to search large collections of data for patterns.
Still sound like gobbledygook? It works something like this. Billions of phone calls are made daily. The numbers are gathered along with length of conversation. It’s essentially dumped into a data base. In other words, one computer downloads its billions of numbers into another computer. There it sits. When a terrorist suspect comes under scrutiny, his specific number is plugged into the database and “hits” are looked for. The computer has the ability (which no human could do) to see patterns in the calls this person X makes. For instance. X is in Istanbul. He is a “known” terrorist. He places a calls Yemen, Colorado, and Miami. The numbers in Yemen make calls to New Jersey and Miami and Charleston. The number from Colorado makes calls to New Jersey and Charleston. Charleston called Colorado. A pattern is established.
At this point, (with perhaps other surveillance information) as I understand it, the government goes to the FISA court and requests a warrant to subpoena the actual names of those persons in the pattern. And with further investigation it may lead to actually looking at the actual conversations or lead to wiretaps.
Similar things are done with the Internet, now a preferred means of communication between terrorist cells.
So nobody is reading your e-mails. Nobody is listening to your calls, or noting that you called Cousin Dotty last month. It’s just numbers and no human is even looking at the metadata at all, since it is meaningless anyway.
Geraldo Rivera suggests that this leak of the program, is directly related to the anger of the journalistic community at the subpoenaing journalist phone records in an attempt to uncover leaks by government employees. It’s a “in your face” sort of response.
The Rivera claims are in fact real. Terrorists do learn from our leaks and move to new ways of doing business. It is thought that it is this reason that caused the Obama Administration to move into the Internet data mining arena. At least Nicolle Wallace, former communication chief for Bush suggested this on Morning Joe this morning.
So, in all, I’m a lot less upset now than I was.
But of course I now find myself in a quandary. I recall that I was supportive of the leaking of the Pentagon Papers back in the Nixon years, and I have been similarly supportive of Bradley Manning and his leaking of information about the wars in the Middle East. But I find myself rather supportive of the government’s attempts to stop leaks from those who may in fact be more interested in harming a president than they are about the “immorality” of that which they leak about. (I’m of course reading that in).
So I am conflicted. I don’t think that the Pentagon papers situation or the Manning leaks compromised “security”, but rather reflected our government’s being deeply involved with corruption without those countries. Perhaps my memory is faulty. Here I see real attempts to undermine THIS government as a political ploy to gain advantage for a party or group within a party. Predictably Rand Paul is screeching that 1984 has arrived. Paul of course would be happiest without any government at all, and his squawking has to be held in that context. It should be noted that Paul introduced an amendment last year to ban this stuff when it was PASSED once again in December.
So are my positions irreconcilable or not?
Hopefully some of you can assist me, for a mind divided cannot stand. (Unless you’re a fundamentalist, and then all bets are off).
So help me out here guys.
For an excellent timetable of the Patriot Act/FISA/NSA database, see What you Should Know about the Government Massive Domestic Surveillance Program.
- Senator Franken Calls for FISA Court Opinions to be Made Public When Possible (politicususa.com)
- Patriot Act at the center of the storm (cnn.com)
- Intelligence chief blasts NSA document leaks (cnsnews.com)
- guardian tecnologia: Fisa chief judge defends integrity of court over Verizon records collection (guardian.co.uk)
- ‘Fox and Friends’ suddenly against wiretapping they supported under Bush (rawstory.com)
- What You Should Know About The Government’s Massive Domestic Surveillance Program (kstreet607.com)