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President Bush's Statement:
President Bush made a brief statement on the latest NSA surveillance story today. The New York Times has the transcript of the statement here.
Mr. X (www):
Can someone please explain to me how this is different from the situation with Nixon?
5.11.2006 4:22pm
uh clem (mail):
...the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval.

I guess this all depends on what the term "court approval" means.

At first read, one would think that he's talking about going to a court, presenting probable cause and having the courts issue warrants.

But another way to read it is to parse it literally and assume that that he means that if some court decision somewhere can be twisted to imply that the president can tap phones without a warrant, then he has been given "court approval".

IOW, if the president does it, it's not illegal. The courts have approved this stance, so he has court approval to do whatever he wants. Yeah, I think that's what he's really saying here.
5.11.2006 4:23pm
Josh_Jasper (mail):
We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.


That's exactly what this is doing. I mean, the denial here is so contrary to the truth it's almost like he's talking about an alternate reality.
5.11.2006 5:01pm
Josh_Jasper (mail):
Q Sir, how is collecting phone calls not an intrusion on privacy?

(No response from the president.)



That about sums it up.
5.11.2006 5:02pm
Ed M:
In response to Mr X: It differs in that wiretapping under the Nixon administration was much less comprehensive.

Specific targets (politically inspired, yes) were established, with the at least remotely credible justification that they might be seditious. In that era, armed revolution was taken as a distinct if improbable threat.

The current procedure is much simpler, and much more comprehensive: Tap EVERYONE's phones, and then (potentially) go back and see if ANYONE might be planning violent activities related to national security.

The argument could be made that the Nixon administration certainly WOULD HAVE been more all=encompassing, if the technology had been available.

It is worth noting that in the present, widespread wiretapping of specific individuals/organizations such as Democrats or the NAACP has not yet been revealed, to the best of my knowledge.
5.11.2006 5:08pm
KeithK (mail):
Can someone please explain to me how this is different from the situation with Nixon?

Motive quite clearly sets this apart from Nixon, IMO. There is no indication that the current domestic surveillance program has been directed at political opponents of the Administration or for political gain. All indications are that the program is intended for the defense of this country. By no means does that make the program legal. But it certainly puts it on a different level from a moral/ethical perspective.
5.11.2006 5:10pm
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
I just can't see how anyone would put political wiretapping in the same category as national defense. Anyone who compares the two loses my respect instantly. The legal issues are indeed separate from that, but there's no getting around the huge differences between the actions themselves. If what Bush is doing is illegal, then the laws are immoral. What Nixon was doing is wrong even independently of the legal issues, but there's no even halfway decent argument that it's immoral to spy on people who want to blow up large numbers of Americans.
5.11.2006 5:18pm
Anonymous Jim:
"there's no even halfway decent argument that it's immoral to spy on people who want to blow up large numbers of Americans."

You know, I agree with you. But it seems to me that defending this program as described may require "a halfway decent argument that it's moral to spy on innocent American citizens."
5.11.2006 5:30pm
Rational Actor (mail):
Jeremy Pierce

How is it that you know what Bush is doing, as opposed to what Bush says he is doing? Anyone who assumes that something is true simply because a politician says so loses my respect immediately.

And, since no one that I know of has argued that it is immoral to spy on people who want to blow up Americans, I will ask you a more relevant question: is there a halfway decent argument that it is immoral to indiscriminately spy on all Americans because someone somewhere might want to blow up a group of Americans? [Please note that I
5.11.2006 5:34pm
Not a lawyer, but ...:
What is being collected is a record of what phone calls have been made (or perhaps even attempted), not the content of the actual calls: On such-and-such date, at such-and-such time, phone number X called phone number Y; the conversation lasted for Z minutes/seconds. It's a DATABASE. So the President's statement is certainly true - if you parse it, he never denies the collection of phone RECORDS.

Interestingly, Qwest refused to participate because the government would not give it adequate assurances of legality.
5.11.2006 6:08pm
DJ (mail):
"We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans."

Yes, from all reports this is exactly right. The government is seeing if there're patterns of phone calls made to known terrorists. I have no idea whether this is lawful under existing law (Prof. Kerr suggests there's no constitutional violation), but it certainly is not (as the President says) trolling through the lives of INNOCENT Americans--only those who, you know, apparently have Osama on speed dial. Shouldn't the government know who those people are?
5.11.2006 6:15pm
Redman:
Interesting that no one is complaining that the phone companies maintain the records in the first place. Are they required by law to do that?
5.11.2006 6:15pm
Fishbane (mail):
If what Bush is doing is illegal, then the laws are immoral.

So the argument has shifted to, "if the President does it, it's not immoral?"

I don't mean that to be as snarky as it sounds. But given that we don't know what, exactly, is going on, I don't know how else to read that.
5.11.2006 6:21pm
DJ (mail):
Why would people do that, Redman? The phone companies aren't named "George W. Bush".
5.11.2006 6:22pm
Humble Law Student:
Yes, once again, the screams of outrage. What exactly is going on here? Assuming I have it straight, it is merely cataloging phone calls by phone number and attempting to find connections to terrorist numbers. NOT listening in to the content. I'm not sure if "tapping" the phone is even the correct word. Tapping the phone implies (at least to me) of being able to listen in or record the content, which from what I understand is not being done here.

But, don't let the facts get in the way of your self-righteous outrage. By all means spout off...
5.11.2006 6:31pm
Medis:
Redman,

That is the information that appears on your phone bill.

DJ,

I admit to be confused by your comments. If the story is accurate, the NSA wants call records for everyone, whether or not they have been party to a communication with a known terrorist.
5.11.2006 6:33pm
uh clem (mail):
What is being collected is a record of what phone calls have been made (or perhaps even attempted), not the content of the actual calls

Yes, that is the piece of information that dribbled out today, over the strenuous objections of the administration. The next logical question, given the fact that they've been hiding this for several years is: what else are they doing? And what else are they hiding?

Until the administration comes clean and starts leveling with us (or at least congressional oversight committees) I'm going to assume the worst. Anyone who trusts them at their word at this point is a thrice-fooled perma-fool.
5.11.2006 6:41pm
DJ (mail):
Yeah, Medis, that sums it up. The question I was addressing was whether the President got it right when he said the feds weren't mining personal information of millions of innocent Americans. And my point is that aggregating data of people who make phone calls to known terrorists is hardly data-mining innocent Americans' personal information. The NSA is not keeping track of the phone calls I make to my wife. But (from reports) it is monitoring spikes in calls to Al Qaeda. Isn't terrorist chatter the kind of information we want the government to know about?
5.11.2006 6:45pm
Elais:
I can understand tracing calls by known terrorists. But it appears they are collecting all this information and then looking for 'patterns of terrorism'. What terroristic patterns are they looking for? What, exactly, is the red flag that indicates terrorist activity? Making dozes of calls to a mosque? What is to stop the President or anyone else from compiling a massive database that does contain personal information?

Bush's pretty words that he is protecting our privacy means nothing if it is not backed by law. Someone has to tell the President 'NO' sometime and mean it.

It's sort of like casting a wide net over, say the population of New York, and then scrutinizing every person to see if they 'look like terrorists'. It is neither useful, nor legal.
5.11.2006 6:49pm
BruceB (mail):
DJ,

I don't think that accurately describes the program that was publicized today, though. It *isn't* keeping track of calls to known terrorists; that was the last program we learned about.

This program explicitly *is* keeping track of all phone calls of all people. So yes, the NSA is indeed keeping track of when you call your wife, how often, and for how long you spoke. It's also keeping track of your phone calls to your dermatologist, mistress, and credit counselor. And the government needs to know this why, exactly?
5.11.2006 6:50pm
Medis:
DJ,

Again, if the report is accurate, I don't understand your comments. The NSA would in fact be "keeping track of the phone calls [you] make to [your] wife," meaning they would have records of those calls in the database. Similarly, they would not just be "aggregating data of people who make phone calls to known terrorists." They would be aggregating data respecting all people who make phone calls to anyone.
5.11.2006 6:51pm
Fishbane (mail):
Assuming I have it straight, it is merely cataloging phone calls by phone number and attempting to find connections to terrorist numbers. NOT listening in to the content. I'm not sure if "tapping" the phone is even the correct word.

It is called, in the lingo, a pen register trace. (And different rules do apply to this sort of "metadata" than to the content of calls.) If you wish to downplay the importance of a record of ever call made by every person in the nation, you first must explain why such a massive database would be built in the first place. If it isn't any big deal, why bother?

On the other hand... if it has value, you have to ask yourself if our government will be able to restrain itself strictly to teh terrorists. Prosecutors will fall over themselves for a search of this. Think about divorce proceedings. Certainly, a corrupt cop will never be tempted sell access to PIs.

But you're not doing anything wrong, so you don't have anything to worry about, right?
5.11.2006 6:58pm
DJ (mail):
"This program explicitly *is* keeping track of all phone calls of all people."

No. The phone companies--not the NSA--keeps "track" (meaning retains records) of all phone calls. And, as I understand from the reports, such records go back decades.

Since you have touble understanding, Medis, let me make it clear: What the program does here is (1) obtain this pre-existing information and (2) analyze it for patterns. What sort of patterns? I don't know for sure, but some easy ones come to mind: seeing who routinely calls the numbers of known terrorists; observing when a large increase in the number of calls to the Middle East occurs (chatter which could, perhaps, pre-sage a terrorist attack); and, after a terrorist attack occurs, determine if there was an unusual pattern of calls made before or after the event. Note that this has nothing to do with personal information of innocent Americans.

And, BruceB, I don't have a mistress (thanks for classing things up here), but I can assure you that the feds are not using their ample resources to monitor or "keep track" of my phone calls to my wife because she is not a terrorist and she doesn't live in Syria or Iran.

I agree that we should be vigilant that NSA not use this information willy nilly. But that doesn't have anything to do with what the President said today--which was the original topic of this post, right?
5.11.2006 7:22pm
Just an Observer:
Bush's statement was a classic non-denial denial.

He actually disputed nothing in the USA Today story.
5.11.2006 7:31pm
byomtov (mail):
What in the world is the difference between NSA getting the information from the phone cos. and tracking it itself? Suppose they were getting everyone's financial records. Would it be OK because banks, brokerage houses, etc, were the actual record-keepers and NSA was just just getting the pre-existing data?
5.11.2006 7:39pm
Medis:
DJ,

The problem with your analysis is that your step (1) already involves the government collecting the personal information of innocent Americans.
5.11.2006 7:46pm
BruceB (mail):
DJ,

"I can assure you that the feds are not using their ample resources to monitor or "keep track" of my phone calls to my wife because she is not a terrorist and she doesn't live in Syria or Iran."

I have no idea what you base your assurance on, but if you have that much certainty, you are much more trusting of the government than I am.

If the use of this data was as you describe, why would they need the records of all calls Americans made to other Americans? Why not trace, record, and/or tap just the calls to these known terrorists, and to/from Middle Eastern countries?

The mistress comment (along with the debt and doctor examples) was meant to illustrate that many people, while breaking no laws, have things they wish to keep personal and private. No intent at all to besmirch you, and sorry if it came across that way.
5.11.2006 8:18pm
Josh_Jasper (mail):
People keep saying that the NSA is looking through phone records of known terrorists

That's not true. They're not telling us who they're looking at, or for what reasons. In fact, we have no clue what they're doing. This is just another case of the Bush administration and it's tools telling us to trust them, and not allowing us to check up on what they're doing.

For all we know, they could be playing six degrees of seperation from political opponents. We have no way of knowing, do we?

Again, I'll ask the people who support Bush ahving this right: do you think Clinton wouldn't abuse it? Remember the outrage that was generated over his requesting raw FBI files. Now you'll be granting him (assuming retroactive history :-) the right to check up on anyone's calling paterns without oversight.
5.12.2006 3:04pm