Politics What Does ‘Terrorist Surveillance’ Really Mean?
Obviously nobody is going to see this article today, because everybody’s all hepped up on Superbowl XL and spicy guacamole—or whatever your traditional sporty sustenance may be. But listen: bookmark this article for a more thorough Monday morning perusal. The Washington Post has a fantastic piece by Barton Gellman, Dafna Linzer, and Carol D. Leonnig on Bush’s FISA-bypass program—you know, the one alternately known as “domestic spying” or “terrorist surveillance,” depending on who’s talking.
It seems to me that the furor over domestic spying has died down a little in the wake of the State of the Union. Bush was smart to dangle that alternative-energy carrot off in one corner of the speech, because people paid little heed to the section about intercepting domestic communications. Here’s a refresher:
It is said that prior to the attacks of September the 11th, our government failed to connect the dots of the conspiracy. We now know that two of the hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to al Qaeda operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late. So to prevent another attack—based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute—I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al Qaeda operatives and affiliates to and from America [ … ] The terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks. It remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with al Qaeda, we want to know about it, because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again.
So everyone sitting at home is like, cool, my secretary never beeps in and says “al Qaeda operative on line 1.” Nobody’s spying on me.
Not so fast. Obviously the government doesn’t have a stable al Qaeda phone tree—the program, according to the Washington Post, works through stats-based computer analysis, which whittles down an enormous amount of data into a few thousand suspicious calls to be monitored by people. Of those thousands of calls, say, from you to a friend who’s studying abroad, only about ten (10!) have contained enough terrorist keywords, or whatever, to justify the government requesting permission to extend the surveillance net to domestic calls. That means the vast majority of the program is used to listen in on the conversations of innocent Americans.
Maybe you think that’s acceptable, maybe you don’t. But according to the Post, that high “washout” rate raises some real Constitutional issues.