Friday, April 7 2006
A few months ago the news broke that the United States government had been covertly listening in on the phone conversations of Americans without the approval of the FISA Court, the judicial body whose job it is to approve such listening. At first the story was that the eavesdropping only took place between Americans and people in other countries, though more recently it's seemed probable that everyone's communications have been intercepted. From what I've gathered, such communications (in the form of straight text or computationally-interpreted speech) are being computationally parsed for such words as "explode," "TNT," "dynamite," "Allah," "jihad," "my brothers," "God willing," "subway," "rush hour," "bridge," "nuclear power plant," "hijack," "flight," "detector," "detonator," "conceal," "disguise," "Pentagon," "White House," "Al Qaeda," and (of course) "virgins." This is the kind of parsing that would be used to glean warning of a future terrorist attack, assuming (of course) that such an attack were being planned in unencrypted, correctly-spelled English.
Most of the news stories about this eavesdropping seem to buy implicitly the White House line that, whether or not it is actually legal, it is being done only in the public interest, to thwart a future terrorist attack. Given the brazen way Bush has decided to own what he calls "the Terrorism Surveillance Program," the White House must have run some focus groups and determined that most Americans will buy even illegal eavesdropping if the claim is made that it is being done to prevent "another 9/11."
But the strength of that justification depends entirely on the credibility and apparent goodness of the administration. The lower the regard for the Bush administration, the less enthusiastic people will be about these bozos listening in on their phone calls. That's why it's such a huge story that Bush himself might have been the one who set the ball in motion for a leak that metastastized into the revelation of a covert operative's identity. All these months (and years), Bush has been claiming to want to get to the bottom of that leak while railing against and and all other leaks in his administration. To be implicated as the one behind it all along demonstrates a couple things that render all the justifications for "the Terrorism Surveillance Program" suspect:
- When it's time to score a political point, Bush does whatever he wants regardless of the law or the things he's said. This is huge, because suddenly everything you've ever said on the phone or sent in an email could be used by these guys if they found the political necessity to do so. That's terrifying.
- If Cheney received Bush's approval for a politically-motivated leak, maybe Bush actually is in charge and cannot simply be dismissed (like Reagan was before him) as a loveably-retarded figurehead, the kind one might want to drink a beer and get stupid with. Maybe Bush is more like his mother than first imagined: petty, mean-spirited, and irrationally vengeful. Our political language has a word for this condition: Nixonian.
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