Last week, USA Today broke the news that for more than four years, the NSA has been collecting phone data records on millions of Americans, with the goal of building "a database of every call ever made" in the U.S. This comes weeks after Alberto Gonzales assured the House Judiciary Committee that the government was not engaged in surveillance of phone calls between Americans in the U.S. Gonzales was answering questions about a similar four-year-old NSA program which involved warrantless surveillance of communications, despite President Bush's assurances that "A wiretap requires a court order...When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so." With all this official disinformation, the most recent assurances that the NSA is only collecting data, not monitoring phone calls, give little comfort.
The Washington Post found in a snap poll that a majority of Americans are willing to accept the trade-off of diminished privacy for enhanced security. As I discussed in a recent op-ed, this is a false choice. Security and liberty are flip sides of the same coin and are very much entwined. It's important to remember that before Bush took office, the U.S. effectively uncovered and thwarted terrorist plots without epic collection of phone and other third party records, without extralegal surveillance, and certainly without stooping to torture. The millennium attack, for example, was discovered and thwarted using tried-and-true investigative techniques, which furthermore yielded a wealth of information about al-Qaeda's plans for the U.S. --- information which might have prevented further attacks if the right people had paid attention.
However, data collection on this unprecedented scale, far from improving national security, can actually make it more difficult to track down terrorists. Suppose you're searching for lost keys. Most likely, you'd start your search where you last had them, then gradually broaden your scope to include all of the places you'd been since you last had them. Using the administration's approach of universal data collection, however, you would also have to conduct a tile-by-tile inspection of the roof. On your neighbor's house.
Commentators are just beginning to note that such broadly scoped data mining is tricky business. For instance, has any terrorist been identified among the 300,000 plus names currently on the "no-fly list"? What have recent series of "orange alerts" and "no tip will go uncovered" policies yielded? Investigators can quickly be buried in false leads and false positives, particularly when they do not begin with specific, hard investigative data. One FBI official who participated in the eavesdropping programs complained, "We'd chase a number, find it's a schoolteacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism -- case closed. After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration." The old axiom of looking for a needle in a haystack holds true -- and it certainly doesn't help to add more hay.
There is a more fundamental problem with the administration's willingness to invade privacy and trample civil liberties in the name of national security. Many Bush administration tactics, including use of rendition and black sites, third party data collection , warrantless surveillance , and treatment of U.S. citizens as enemy combatants, are of dubious legality, and the administration has gone to great lengths to avoid judicial oversight of its actions. The result is an extralegal, 'underground' system of "intelligence" collection and detention which is not only contrary to American ideals but also not accountable to either Congress or the courts.
History proves that unchecked power can and will be abused. James Madison warned, "The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse." In fact, FISA, and the judicial oversight it now entails, was a direct response, less than 30 years ago, to intelligence gathering abuses. "Just trust us" certainly doesn't suffice from an administration that gave us war in Iraq, a feckless response to Katrina, Valerie Plame, Medicare Part D and a skyrocketing federal debt, or which produced the likes of Lewis Libby , David Safavian, Claude Allen and Alphonso Jackson.
Protecting America's security does require pragmatic action, but it also requires the judiciousness and accountability that come from affording constitutional rights and operating under a system of law and constitutional checks and balances.
Coleen Rowley, Democratic Candidate for Congress (MN-02), and David Bailey, volunteer writer with the Coleen Rowley for Congress Campaign, authored the above.