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Your Civil Liberties Are Safe

By James Taranto
May 15, 2006

From yesterday's New York Times:

In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney and his top legal adviser argued that the National Security Agency should intercept purely domestic telephone calls and e-mail messages without warrants in the hunt for terrorists, according to two senior intelligence officials.

But N.S.A. lawyers, trained in the agency's strict rules against domestic spying and reluctant to approve any eavesdropping without warrants, insisted that it should be limited to communications into and out of the country, said the officials, who were granted anonymity to discuss the debate inside the Bush administration late in 2001.

The N.S.A.'s position ultimately prevailed.

We don't know enough to have an opinion on the merits of this outcome, but the process ought to reassure anyone who is worried about civil liberties. Here we had a debate within the government, apparently very soon after 9/11, which the civil-liberties side won.

The anti-Bush crowd will doubtless sound alarms over the position Cheney took, even though it didn't prevail. And let us stipulate, without getting into the particulars of this case, that overzealousness about preventing terrorism could lead to genuine infringements of civil liberties.

Even so, an administration that is overzealous, tempered by a bureaucracy that is more cautious, strikes us as an excellent arrangement. Think about it: Would you vote for a presidential candidate who promised to be less zealous about preventing another 9/11?

High Bias
That New York Times piece in the preceding item must have confused the heck out of Times readers who believe what they read in the Times. How could the Times be reporting that the administration decided not to listen in on domestic phone calls when the Times has been claiming for months that there was a "domestic surveillance program"? The answer, of course, is that that is the Times' Orwellian designation for a program that listens in only on international calls involving people believed to have terror links.

Sloppy bias if not out-and-out dishonesty is endemic in the reporting on the administration's terrorist surveillance programs. This is from another Times piece:

President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, insisted today that a newly disclosed government effort to compile data on millions of telephone calls in search of terrorist-linked calling patterns was a legal and "narrowly designed program" that did not involve listening to individual calls.

The headline: "Bush Aide Defends Eavesdropping on Phone Calls"--although in fact he is noting that the program in question doesn't involve eavesdropping.

Another misleading headline (though strictly speaking it isn't inaccurate) comes from the Associated Press: "Spy Agency Watching Americans From Space." It isn't what it sounds like:

A little-known spy agency that analyzes imagery taken from the skies has been spending significantly more time watching U.S. soil.

In an era when other intelligence agencies try to hide those operations, the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, is proud of that domestic mission.

He said the work the agency did after hurricanes Rita and Katrina was the best he'd seen an intelligence agency do in his 42 years in the spy business.

"This was kind of a direct payback to the taxpayers for the investment made in this agency over the years, even though in its original design it was intended for foreign intelligence purposes," Clapper said in a Thursday interview with The Associated Press. . . .

After last year's hurricanes, the agency had an unusually public face. It set up mobile command centers that sprung out of the backs of Humvees and provided imagery for rescuers and hurricane victims who wanted to know the condition of their homes. Victims would provide their street address and the NGA would provide a satellite photo of their property. In one way or another, some 900 agency officials were involved.

Another AP dispatch, by Catherine Tsai, profiles Joseph Nacchio, former CEO of Qwest Communications, which refused the NSA's request for call data:

Denver-based Qwest Communications International Inc. has been mired in criminal and ethics allegations for years. It was accused of massive fraud by the government and later restated $3 billion in revenue. Former executives have been accused of wrongdoing--including Nacchio, who faces 42 counts of insider trading accusing him of illegally selling $101 million in company stock after privately learning Qwest might not meet its financial goals.

But it was apparently Nacchio who agreed with Qwest's attorneys that surrendering "call-detail records" to the NSA was wrong--putting him squarely on the side of the little guy.

Why does Tsai think the "little guy" wouldn't want the government to collect the dots so it can connect the dots before the next terrorist attack? More to the point, why does her editor think such editorializing is appropriate in a news story?

Then there are the polls. The lead story in USA Today is headlined "Poll: 51% Oppose NSA Database." The paper's Susan Page reports:

A majority of Americans disapprove of a massive Pentagon database containing the records of billions of phone calls made by ordinary citizens, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. About two-thirds are concerned that the program may signal other, not-yet-disclosed efforts to gather information on the general public.

But the poll results tell a more complicated story. The first question is, "Do you think the Bush administration has gone too far, has been about right, or has not gone far enough in restricting people's civil liberties in order to fight terrorism?" Results: Too far 41%, about right 34%, not far enough 19%.

So Page could have written her lead paragraph as follows:

A majority of Americans do not think the administration has gone too far in restricting people's civil liberties in order to fight terrorism. Thirty-four percent say the balance it has struck is "about right," while 19% say it doesn't go far enough.

The paper, that is, could have written a pro-administration story or an anti-administration story based on this poll, and it opted for the latter.

What this poll really shows is that people often hold seemingly contradictory views, perhaps because they haven't thought the issues through. Page doesn't note the conflicting results of her paper's own poll, but she does acknowledge:

The findings differ from an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken Thursday night of 502 adults. In that survey, 63% called the program an acceptable way to investigate terrorism. The findings may differ because questions in the two polls were worded differently.

How the questions in the two polls were worded would seem pertinent here, but Page doesn't tell us. So we will tell you:

  • USA Today: "As you may know, as part of its efforts to investigate terrorism, a federal government agency obtained records from three of the largest U.S. telephone companies in order to create a database of billions of telephone numbers dialed by Americans. . . . Based on what you have heard or read about this program to collect phone records, would you say you approve or disapprove of this government program?"

  • Post/ABC: "It's been reported that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. It then analyzes calling patterns in an effort to identify possible terrorism suspects, without listening to or recording the conversations. Would you consider this an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?"

The Post/ABC question includes two crucial pieces of information: an explanation of how the NSA uses the data it gathers, and the stipulation that the program doesn't involve eavesdropping. USA Today leaves these matters to the poll subjects' imagination--and since only 28% of those polled say they've been following the story "very closely," it seems likely that quite a few of them disapproved based on false assumptions that the program was more intrusive than it actually was.

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