The lies keep coming. During the run-up to war with Iraq, we were told this administration knew for sure that Saddam had “weapons of mass destruction,” and not only that, but knew exactly where they were. When no WMD turned up after the invasion, the Bushies came up with a bushel of excuses and denied ever saying that in the first place.
When it came out that the U.S. government was intercepting and listening to all overseas calls, the president himself stepped up to the plate and declared that they weren’t spying on domestic calls and now we learn that the biggest database in the world is being compiled by the National Security Agency (NSA) in which a record of every phone call made in the U.S. since 2001 is kept.
Oh, but don’t fret no one in government would ever allow this vital and potentially sensitive information to be put to unsavory purposes, such as blackmailing political opponents or similar dirty tricks. That anyone in Washington would do such a thing why, it’s unthinkable!
Trust us, say the biggest liars since the boy who cried wolf. Scooter Libby really doesn’t remember outing undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame, and Ahmed Chalabi really is a “hero in error.” All the lying war propaganda vomited forth by this administration and its media toadies on the front page of the New York Times, then dutifully lapped up by administration talking heads on the Sunday morning talk show circuit, was just an honest mistake. They didn’t mean to deceive us, you see, and this is supposed to make us feel better as well as let the War Party off the hook.
It does neither. It won’t matter in the long run, however, if the neocons get what they’re after. What’s really at stake here is the continued relevance of the Constitution and the legacy of the Founding Fathers. Listen closely you can hear them turning in their graves.
What is significant about this new revelation is the way the White House is spinning it: they claim it’s all perfectly legal, because the president according to their creative interpretation of the Constitution has the “inherent” authority to create such a database. Congress may object, but it isn’t up to them it’s up to “the decider,” as Dubya has recently begun referring to Himself. Instead of a president, we now have a decider in chief, who combines the qualities of a chief executive, a military chieftain, and a king. Not a modern monarch, all of whom are merely symbolic reminders of fallen empires, but a king of old, who could dismiss Parliament and rule by decree.
The phone record database is ostensibly a weapon to be used against terrorists plotting another 9/11: by employing a technique known as “data-mining” the authorities are supposed to be able to detect “bursts” of unusual calls and reveal a pattern that will somehow lead them to the bad guys. A piece in the Christian Science Monitor says this “can be used to identify a ‘social network’ of interconnected people including, perhaps, would-be terrorists.” Yes, and also including the “social network” of the political opposition, antiwar leaders, and yikes! antiwar writers.
Data-mining is the Big Idea now energizing the burgeoning “anti-terrorist” industry, and its purpose is nothing less than to build databases that can be “cross-referenced in the hope of matching patterns, relationships, and activities that bear investigating.” The Monitor goes on to cite Silicon Valley security expert Bruce Schneier, of Counterpane Internet Security:
“You should presume that phone numbers are being collated with Internet records, credit-card records, everything.”
That’s why they call it totalitarianism because they want access to everything. The totality of your life must be available at the touch of a button. Remember “Total Information Awareness,” the scheme cooked up by John Poindexter and Donald Rumsfeld that Congress ordered dismantled? Well, this “data-mining” business is it: Rummy, it appears, just embedded the program in a different bureaucratic rat-hole, and they’ve been pursuing their quest for omniscience ever since, without the knowledge or oversight of Congress. This usurpation has so riled Sen. Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, and 50 other members of congress, that there will be a congressional investigation into the matter.
“Privacy nuts,” sneers The Weekly Standard, which wheels out good old reliable Heather MacDonald to explain why “only a paranoid solipsist could feel threatened” by this latest intrusion. After all, Heather explains, your name won’t be attached to the number: it’s just a bunch of digits, silly. And even then, there’s just so much data that getting anything out of it is going to be very difficult. There, there now go back to sleep.
But if there’s too much data to glean meaningful patterns in anything close to real-time, then doesn’t that invalidate the entire “data-mining” procedure as a useful tool in tracking terrorists? As William Arkin put it in a fascinating piece on this subject of “harvesting” useful intelligence from a massive database:
“An all-seeing domestic surveillance is slowly being established, one that in just a few years time will be able to track the activities and ‘transactions’ of any targeted individual in near real time.”
And digits can always be attached to a name, as MacDonald admits:
“True, the government can de-anonymize the data if connections to terror suspects emerge, and it is not known what threshold of proof the government uses to put a name to critical phone numbers. But until that point is reached, your privacy is at greater risk from the Goodyear blimp at a Stones concert than from the NSA’s supercomputers churning through trillions of zeros and ones representing disembodied phone numbers.”
The mere fact that “it is not known what threshold of proof the government uses” before implementing this Orwellian technique tells us all we need to know about this very imminent threat to what is left of our civil liberties. What threshold of proof must be reached before the government arrogates to itself the “right” to ferret out the perhaps intimate details of your life? If we are talking about this government, one shudders to contemplate the answer. The Bush administration considers itself above the law: it recognizes no law but itself, and to hell with the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights.
The old republic passes away, but what will take its place? The outlines of the new system emerging from the ruins of the Constitution are beginning to take shape, and it isn’t a pretty sight. One of my favorite bloggers put the issue in context, warning against:
“The ultra-conservative legal scholars who invented the doctrine of the unitary executive and turned into our own home-grown version of the Fuhrerprinzip now backed by the ability to process 10 billion bits of telecommunications data per second. Big Brother, eat your heart out.”
Last year, a number of writers, including Lew Rockwell of the Mises Institute, Scott McConnell of The American Conservative, and myself, among others, took up the question of whether or not America is going fascist. A unique confluence of various factors gave rise to this kind of speculation: the leader cult that had grown up around the president, the worship of the military, and a foreign policy stance somewhere between old-style British imperialism and Soviet-style “liberation” (as when the Red Army “liberated” Afghanistan in the 1970s). Rockwell started the discussion with his perceptive comments on “Red State Fascism,” and the topic soon became a subject of debate all over the Internet, as well as in print. I chimed in on several occasions with my own somewhat pessimistic prognosis. Scott was more optimistic, yet still clearly worried about the future prospects of a genuinely fascist regime taking hold in the land of the free. The existence of government “data-miners” with full access to our phone records, our financial records, and every other bit of data they can dig up, provides yet more evidence that Rockwell is right about the rising fascist danger. As he put it:
“The most significant socio-political shift in our time has gone almost completely unremarked, and even unnoticed. It is the dramatic shift of the red-state bourgeoisie from leave-us-alone libertarianism, manifested in the Congressional elections of 1994, to almost totalitarian statist nationalism. Whereas the conservative middle class once cheered the circumscribing of the federal government, it now celebrates power and adores the central state, particularly its military wing.”
The Bushies and their media megaphones are loudly touting a recent poll that shows majority support for increased surveillance. This, I think, underscores the prescience of Rockwell’s analysis. The present regime is busily building up the structural basis of a police state, one in which they will have the power to see into everything with the possible exception of your very soul and that, I can almost assure you, is coming.
Yes, data-mining can be used to track those millions of Americans who aren’t plotting terrorist attacks and, heck, Big Brother can even watch us from space. I suppose executive orders could be used to lock up political dissidents without charges or a trial: and, yes, the U.S just possibly might use its doctrine of military “preemption” to defeat a threat that was never there. Luckily for us, we’re governed by angels. Otherwise, I shudder to think what might happen