Sunday, December 16, 2007

A "Broader and Deeper" Surveillance State

'Broader and Deeper' Surveillance

With the Senate set to move on a revised FISA bill, and the renewed debate over retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that cooperated with legally dubious NSA requests, the so-called "Terrorist Surveillance Program" is on the front-burner again.

But the NYT adds a new wrinkle to the debate today: the Bush administration's surveillance efforts are even "broader and deeper" than previously believed.

"[T]he battle is really about something much bigger. At stake is the federal government's extensive but uneasy partnership with industry to conduct a wide range of secret surveillance operations in fighting terrorism and crime.

"The N.S.A.'s reliance on telecommunications companies is broader and deeper than ever before, according to government and industry officials, yet that alliance is strained by legal worries and the fear of public exposure.

"To detect narcotics trafficking, for example, the government has been collecting the phone records of thousands of Americans and others inside the United States who call people in Latin America, according to several government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program remains classified. But in 2004, one major phone carrier balked at turning over its customers' records. Worried about possible privacy violations or public relations problems, company executives declined to help the operation, which has not been previously disclosed.

"Glenn Greenwald characterizes the landscape as one approaching a 'surveillance state.'

The Executive Branch and the largest telecommunications companies work in virtually complete secrecy -- with no oversight and no notion of legal limits -- to spy on Americans, on our own soil, at will.

More than anything else, what these revelations highlight -- yet again -- is that the U.S. has become precisely the kind of surveillance state that we were always told was the hallmark of tyrannical societies, with literally no limits on the government's ability or willingness to spy on its own citizens and to maintain vast dossiers on those activities. The vast bulk of those on whom the government spies have never been accused, let alone convicted, of having done anything wrong.

One should assume the debate will now subtly shift to include the new revelations. Before, if you believed that the Bush administration should get a warrant before spying on Americans, and if you suggested that telecommunications companies ought to follow the law and respect customers' privacy, White House allies insisted you were effectively "pro-terrorism." After all, if you're "strong" on national security, you wouldn't mind giving the NSA and telecoms unchecked, unregulated authority to spy on whomever they pleased.

We're bound to hear a similar argument here. Instead of the "Terrorist Surveillance Program," the label will be expanded to the "Drug Kingpin Surveillance Program." If you expect the Bush administration and the telecoms to follow the law, you must be "soft" on narco-traffickers.

--Steve Benen

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