Tuesday, December 27, 2005


On Wiretapping

I've seen lots of commentary about the NSA wiretapping saga. Lileks is pretty funny; Michelle Malkin rounds things up pretty well. But Gloria Salt was the one that got my attention:
Yet in a collective frenzy of malignant ignorance, Senators (and, inevitably, media pundits) are falling all over themselves to exhibit their refusal to look at precedent. It is better, apparently, to sound righteous than to be right. And these are not cafe pundits shooting their mouths off; these are lawmakers. Oscar Wilde would have enjoyed this spectacle: it is the ultimate instance of style trumping substance. Better to work yourself into a media-friendly lather over the civil rights of those who wish to take away all our civil rights than to do the practical work of ensuring that those rights stay protected.
(emphasis mine)

Is that beautiful, or what?

It gets better:
This is why it can be so comforting to be an Israeli. For all her faults, Israel generally recognizes a threat for what it is, and does what’s necessary – almost always entirely within the law, I might add, and when the law is exceeded, there are commissions and tribunals and consequences. Believe it or not, no one is better at criticizing Israel’s behavior than Israel herself (c.f. Haaretz, the Israeli paper of record, on any day of the week). It is Israel, who takes risks to defend them on the battlefield and in the courtroom, who is truly concerned with safeguarding fundamental civil rights, not American Senators who ignore the law, undermine the authority of the executive during wartime and exert themselves to protect the right of their country’s enemies to destroy it.

Israelis don’t have to fear that the government itself will become so benighted as to leave its own population exposed to an existential threat. As comforting as this is to Israel’s citizens, so too does it explain why Israel is universally disliked: she doesn’t have the luxury of the feel-good option.
I agree up to a point -- Israel can, and does, sometimes protect her enemies at the expense of her citizens, and I hate that. On the other hand, Gloria is quite correct in pointing out that Israelis don't have a fetish about wiretapping and privacy issues the way Americans do.

Personally, I don't think we've quite gotten over Watergate yet, nor Nixon's secret White House transcripts. The thought of being observed or eavesdropped seems to give some Americans the willies. Israelis, on the other hand, are long used to low-level surveillance, and to the notion that journalists during wartime must submit their work to military censors. After all, many Israelis have a friend or a cousin who did their service in military intelligence; people have a general idea of what goes on.

Many Americans, by contrast, seem to think that there's a right to privacy enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. (There isn't.) Nor is there a promise that wartime censors will never be needed. (We saw this in Israel, for example, in 1991, when Saddam was throwing Scud missiles at us... and the Israeli Army Spokesman made it clear to foreign journalists that Scud-landing locations were classified. Many foreign journalists did not understand this -- how can a city-block-sized hole in the ground be classified??? -- and some of them ignored the restriction, announcing "here we are, broadcasting live from the scene of the latest Scud attack, at the corner of Dizengoff and Ben-Yehuda streets in Tel Aviv"... and promptly got cut off by the Israeli military censors. "Thanks", the censors would say icily, just before ejecting those journalists from the country, "Saddam didn't know where his Scuds landed until you told him. Do you enjoy being an unpaid, volunteer spotter for Saddam's Iraqi Army?")

The lesson to be learned, such as it is, is that intelligence often doesn't make sense from the outside. Sometimes the needs of intelligence only make sense to the people who actually work with it -- and sometimes they can't share their reasons with the rest of us, because to do so would compromise the very information they're protecting.

That's why, when someone says that they can't imagine why on Earth President Bush would have needed to authorize warrantless wiretaps, I answer that they're not using their imagination. A commenter named Tantor at Citizen Smash's place had more to say about this:
My take on this "wiretapping" issue is that we are only seeing one leg of the elephant. The sense that I'm getting from reading around is that the NSA has come up with some new technology that does not lend itself to getting a warrant for each hit in its search of the communications net.

I'm just speculating here, but maybe when the NSA gets a list of phone numbers from some terrorist's cell phone or laptop, they are able to plug them into a recursive search that then can search the list of numbers called from each phone. The result would be a map of communications traffic in a terror cell. Maybe they can produce this in a few seconds or minutes, if they act fast.

I'm no cell phone expert, but it seems likely that the NSA can locate the position of a cell call based on the signals received at multiple towers. Perhaps the NSA can also draw a map of the locations of terror cell members based on their search. Perhaps in a few minutes or less.

That would be perishable information that would need to be gathered quickly and acted on quickly. Once the terrorists learned that somebody associated from their cell had been captured, the first thing they should do is turn off their cell phones, dump them in the garbage, and go to a new, virgin cell phone after a few weeks of lying low.

That's a lot of speculation. My general sense is that the NSA is harvesting a lot of data quickly from these phone searches.
Indeed. I would not be at all surprised if this, or something somewhat like this, were the reason for the wiretap authorization in the first place. (It would also explain the relatively small numbers of wiretaps reported by the New York Times; they're going after the known operators.)

Can you imagine the NSA grabbing a live cell-phone conversation, from a known al-Qaeda operative to someone who until then had only been a suspected al-Qaeda sympathizer? Can you imagine what a coup it would be, for American homeland security, to be able to hear terrorist orders given, and then trace outgoing calls to see who receives those orders? -- Now, can you imagine having to ask for warrants before pursuing those conversations, which are probably over and done in seconds?

Certainly, I wouldn't want sweeping wiretap authority to remain in place for the long-term. But in the short-term, if this will prevent terrorist attacks and save lives, I'm all for it.

UPDATE: Courtesy of Michelle Malkin, this gem from the NY Post:
Has The New York Times declared itself to be on the front line in the war against the War on Terror?

The self-styled paper of record seems to be trying to reclaim the loyalty of those radical lefties who ludicrously accused it of uncritically reporting on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Yet the paper has done more than merely try to embarrass the Bush administration these last few months.

It has published classified information — and thereby knowingly blown the covers of secret programs and agencies engaged in combating the terrorist threat.


Does The New York Times consider it self a law unto itself — free to subversively undercut basic efforts by any government to protect and defend its citizens?

The Times, it appears, is less concerned with promoting its dubious views on civil liberties than with undercutting the Bush administration. The end result of the paper's flagrant irresponsibility: Lives have been put in danger on the international, national and local levels.

The ability of the nation to perform the most fundamental mission of any government — protection of its citizens — has been pointlessly compromised.

The Jayson Blair and Judith Miller fias coes were high-profile embarrass ments for The Times, but at the end of the day mostly damaged the newspaper alone.

The NSA, CIA and NYPD stories are of a different order of magnitude — they place in unnecessary danger the lives of U.S. citizens.

The New York Times — a once-great and still-powerful institution — is badly in need of adult supervision.

By all means, read the whole thing. The title -- "The Gray Lady Toys With Treason" -- is no exaggeration.

Ms. Malkin herself, by the way, condemns the NYTimes herself in no uncertain terms. As she puts it:
For its reckless endangerment of national security, unapologetic distortions of our troops' commitment to the mission in Iraq, trashing of 9/11 families who refused to capitulate to political correctness at Ground Zero, routine insipidity and unaccountability, laughable hypocrisy, protectionism for Democrats and liberal pet projects, dishonest Bush-bashing, anti-war pandering, cluelessness by the barrel, narcissism, and skyscraping editorial arrogance and snobbery...
She doesn't pull her punches, does she?

UPDATE II: Courtesy of Powerline, it seems that suspected terrorist groups are now snapping up disposable cell phones, in the hope that they'll be more difficult to trace.

I have no idea if that is true or not. (Either half of it, actually -- that disposable cell-phones are being bought in bulk by actual terrorists, or that disposables are harder to trace.) But it's certainly plausible... and if it is true, then, as John Hinderaker says, "the Times will have a lot to answer for".

(Later -- there's apparently more here than meets the eye. Powerline is on it.)

UPDATE III: Funny, the New York Times didn't mind warrantless wiretapping when President Clinton ordered it... and he apparently didn't limit it the way Bush has! The American Thinker has details, culminating in this classic conclusion:
The Times has historically been referred to as “the Grey Lady.” That grey is beginning to look just plain grimy, and many of us can no longer consider her a lady.


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