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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

FISA or Footwork? Surveillance In The Internet Age

Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) is pushing a bill to expand the ability of the Bush White House to spy on Americans. The bill, due to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, allows telephone wiretaps without a court-issued warrant. Mr. Bush declares he needs this to be able to listen to Al Qaeda phone conversations. Donald Rumsfeld compares opponents of this effort to those who tried to appease 1930s Nazis.

Of course the wiretaps will also be used to listen to political opponents discussing election strategies, anti-war protesters planning new demonstrations, and anyone discussing anything Dick Cheney does not approve of. Rumsfeld also knows the NSDAP used the same tactics in Weimar Germany in the 1920s.

Specter's bill is sure to be rushed through the House and Senate ahead of the upcoming elections. The Republicans fear losing control of the House and perhaps even the Senate in these elections, with the help of racist Senator George Allen. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was written in response to wiretaps on Vietnam anti-war protesters and Daniel Ellsberg's (Pentagon Papers whistle blower) psychiatrist.

Now what self-respecting Al Qaeda operative is unaware that the U.S. government is listening to phonecalls? Furthermore, has the U.S. government really hired enough Arabic and Urdu language translators to keep up with all that chatter? Finally, do these translators really understand every little codeword that a terrorist might have invented to discuss some potential plot?

Encrypted e-mail, plain old postal mail, web pages with secret code hidden in the HTML script, and messages hidden in JPG photo code are just a few of the alternatives to phone communication used by organized crime these days. The stream of data moving through high bandwidth connections today is so vast that the NSA super computers cannot possibly scan every byte for potential clues. Furthermore, reliance on electronic signal interception alone leaves open the potential for debacles like the recent London liquid bomb scare. Any field agent could have learned the suspects held no visas, no passports, and no plane tickets. In that case it would have been far wiser to wait and watch, out in the field.

Real intelligence, even in the Internet Age, still comes from boots on the ground, humans in the field, like always. Most operations are still conducted with an envelope of cash here and a quick conversation there, in person. The government's reliance on electronic surveillance has become a weakness, especially when the bad guys surely know that cell phones are monitored and e-mails are read. The people charged with protecting the world from the next violent outburst need to get out on the streets of Quetta, Karachi, Kandahar, Tel Aviv, Baghdad, or Jakarta and start listening. Those NSA Urdu and Arabic translators would be far more effective in a Yemen tea room than listening to headphones in Fort Meade. Until this happens they will be no more effective at fighting violence than the old lady peering out from behind her living room curtain. Even she knows that to be true.

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