NSA Surveillance A pattern to fear

Posted: May 16, 2006

It's possible to get lost in a crowd.

Maybe that's why last week's disclosure of the Bush administration's data-mining of millions of dialed phone numbers hasn't pushed the public-outrage meter into the red zone yet.

What with Iraq, gas prices and the scandal du jour involving a greedy congressman, there's so much for citizens to be upset about.

Polling in recent days shows that one-half to two-thirds of Americans are OK with the National Security Agency collecting information on ordinary phone calls. They assume, rightly, that federal agents aren't about to bust down their door over a pattern of repeated calls home over the Mother's Day weekend.

But the latest NSA disclosures should be troubling. Indeed, they've caused a furor in Washington. Why? They fit a pattern of a different kind.

That pattern is the Bush administration's penchant for seizing powers without regard to normal checks and balances, all under the rubric of fighting terror. Once presidents get used to grabbing new, privacy-busting powers in secret, then stonewalling oversight, there's no way to know where the trend may lead - in this administration, or the next.

The most worrisome practice has been the NSA's warrantless snooping on actual phone conversations and e-mail traffic to, and from, foreign destinations. The majority of legal scholars views this as a disturbing end-run around U.S. surveillance laws and, possibly, the U.S. Constitution.

Congress has yet to show much inclination to test President Bush's claim that this domestic spy program doesn't require the usual court oversight called for in federal law.

Now come published reports that Vice President Cheney pushed the NSA to intercept even purely domestic phone calls and e-mail without court warrants. At least NSA lawyers fought off that assault on the Fourth Amendment.

This is the same administration that revoked the rights of U.S. citizens under suspicion for terror activities, despite a scolding from the U.S. Supreme Court. And the same one that authorized torture tactics at U.S. terror detention centers.

Now the feds are seeking most of the phone numbers we call. Anyone feeling the least bit uneasy?

Even the conservative Weekly Standard says Bush's credibility on protecting privacy is, "to say the least, weak."

And what were companies such as Verizon, AT&T Corp. and BellSouth Corp. thinking when they trashed their customers' privacy by disclosing the data secretly to the National Security Agency. Federal law prohibits such disclosure - except by court order, or in an emergency where lives were at risk. Right after 9/11, sure, you could make the case for emergency. Not four-plus years later.

To what ill use could analysis of phone numbers be put, you ask? An ABC News investigative team yesterday noted that its reporters have been told the government is tracking numbers they dial; the feds may be trying to ferret out confidential sources. Is that fighting a war on terror, or a war on criticism?

Like so many of Bush's claims of antiterror powers, the NSA's call-tracing desperately needs congressional and court oversight.

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