Eavesdropping: A little dab'll Dubya

Summary:A former head of the National Security Agency justifies the warrantless monitoring of telecommunications, acknowledging privacy is being invaded.

General Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency who was in charge when President Bush first authorized wire taps of U.S. telecommunications that might involve terrorists and currently the second-in-command for U.S. intelligence operations said today, according to the Financial Times:

“The trigger is quicker and a bit softer than it is for a FISA warrant, but the intrusion into privacy is also limited.”

That's an admissionWarrantless monitoring is killing our intelligence efforts the same way a company that gets too much IT budget drowns employees in meaningless data. that there is an intrusion on privacy, even as it attempts to justify the intrusion. Unfortunately, General Hayden went on to exaggerate the challenge the United States faces in providing security to its citizens with an outright misrepsentation when he claimed, as reported by CNN: "Had this program been in effect prior to 9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such.

General Hayden neglected to note that the White House had been warned of imminent attacks within the United States by terrorists flying commercial planes and had access to the identities of at least two of the suicide pilots before the 9/11 attack. Nothing prevented the government from getting that information the last time around, but as we know from recent criticisms by the FBI of the leads provided by NSA, the number of spurious, time-wasting leads generated by electronic surveillance is actually lowering the chances we'll recognize and act on significant information before another attack.

As sources told the New York Times last week, "virtually all [of the leads generatged by the NSA] led to dead ends or innocent Americans," which contradicts General Hayden's assertion that only al Qaeda-related calls are monitored.

Yet, the government claims it is harder than ever to keep tabs on threats because of electronic communications technologies that it needs special access to eavesdrop on. We always hear this in the context of "you can trust your government not to abuse this power." 

This is, as I explained the other day, the traditional claim of law enforcement when it senses an opportunity to expand its access to private life. Law enforcement is hard to do, because that modest inconvenience of getting a warrant protects ordinary people from government abuses far more often than it protects them from terrorist attacks.

What the White House refuses to admit is that, by respecting the law and our tradition of strong civil liberties the task of catching bad guys actually gets easier because it forces police and intelligence agencies to act judiciously and to shepherd their time and resources better. The warrantless monitoring of telecommunications is killing our intelligence efforts, just like a company that gets too much IT budget and then drowns employees in meaningless data. Simple data hygeine would help more than wiretaps that the President today said is monitored by "all kinds of lawyers [who] review the process."

So, now that General Hayden has acknowledged there are "intrusion[s] into privacy," the question is how much are justified by the "new circumstances" of the post-9/11 world? It's clear that even when we had information about the 9/11 terrorists, not much happened. It seems to me that retooling law enforcement's expectations of itself would be far more effective than demolishing the civil liberties that make America great.

Topics: Security

About

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran journalist, media executive and entrepreneur. He was editor of the ground-breaking Digital Media newsletter in the 1990s and a frequent contributor to ZDNet over the years. He led development of the first Web audio/video news network at ON24, sat on the board of Electric Classifieds Inc. and Match.com, and wor... Full Bio

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