I Think I See a Pattern
The news that the president and other members of his administration have been less than honest about government spying on the citizenry since 9-11 is hardly suprising. Nor is it surprising that any number of admnistration backers are willing to go on television and defend the government's newly revealed data-mining fishing expedition (excuse the mixed metaphors).
But what is surprising, at least to me, is that no one is really discussing that program, as it has been covered to date, really makes no sense.
Take the following hypothetical: Let's say that there are 100 al-Qaeda operatives in the U.S., and that they make 10 phone calls a day, on average. Now, if they call Pakistan, or the Sudan, then the previously revealed, non-judicially authorized wiretapping program comes into play. But let's say they make calls to Dearborn, Michigan, Miami, New York City, and so on. Out of the millions of phone calls made in the U.S. every day, it's impossible for me to believe that any mathematical model is going to identify these 1000 phone calls made by al-Qaeda operatives. That would be like hearing a whisper in the middle of a tornado.
Data analysis of that many phone calls is going to reveal that there's a spike in phone traffic at certain times (e.g., 9 pm, when cell phone peak times end for most contracts, after an episode of "American Idol"), and a very sophisticated model might show the interconnectedness of different parts of the country. But . . . unless the program focuses in on particular callers, I can't see how any of these "macro" patterns could possibly lead to intelligence about the activties of a small number of operatives. (And I can't believe that there are enough al-Qaeda operatives in the U.S. to account for more than a miniscule fraction of U.S. domestic phone calls. We're talking noise here, not a pattern.)
Of course, if we could identify these callers, the suspected al-Qaeda terrorists, then we should be able to get FISA authorization for a wiretap (let's pretend that the officials in question are going to follow the law--it's a hypothetical). Here, I guess, the argument would be that we might be interested in people connected to suspected terrorists, and that the evidence with respect to them wouldn't meet the level necessary for the warrant. But this isn't a question of wiretaps, we are told by the defenders of the program. The program, as I understand it, doesn't involve any listening-in--it's merely about patterns of calls. But if identifying the patterns doesn't lead to further investigation, including wiretapping, then what good is it? We will never prevent an attack based on lists of phone numbers suspects (and thousands, hundreds of thousands, of Americans) are calling. So saying that we are monitoring the telephone activities of a few hundred people, and that that is making us safer, in itself, seems pretty absurd to me.
In short, I don't believe that we have heard all that there is to know about this program. My guess is that there's a pretty extensive domestic wiretapping operation backing this up, despite the president's assurances awhile ago that the government is only listening in to international calls.
The pattern that I see is that the administration has consistently lied about these intelligence-gathering activities. (I think that, even if you support these programs, you have to agree with this statement. After all, we can't tell the terrorists what we're doing to catch them, now, can we?) They are still lying, and they will continue to lie. You can count on that.