A recent piece in USA Today (operating as the marketing wing of the Democratic National Committee) suggested that our “civil liberties” are being endangered by President Bush, as usual, because the National Security Agency is collecting telephone records of ordinary citizens like you and me. Almost instantly, the anti-Bush national media machine joined Democrat opportunists in seizing yet another bogus opportunity to throw a hissy fit of mock outrage designed to inflame the populist sensitivities of ordinary citizens, just like you and me (voters, in other words).
Capitalizing on the president’s current low approval ratings and looking toward the elections in November they’re suggesting that something very bad—perhaps illegal—has happened. Well, it has, hasn’t it? Hell, no, it hasn’t! Are you actually believing the deftly spun crap you read in the mainstream media and in the me-too liberal blogs? How about digging beneath the surface and finding out for yourself what is actually going on? Don’t believe me, either! Get the facts for yourself. Don’t be a damn drone with your remote control device being manipulated by USA Today and the Democratic National Committee—or for that matter, by the Republican National Committee, by Karl Rove, or by little old me. Instead of being sitting there being outraged by this perceived trangression against your civil liberties, get the facts.
Have I pissed you off yet? If you’re a single-mindedly stupid Bush-hater, I probably have. You’ll read no farther, if you have even made it this far. However, if you’re an intelligent person, even though our political ideologies might be dissimilar, I hope I have given you a spark that might cause you to look beyond the propaganda in those publications designed to be read by the dumbed-down masses. Let’s get down to the specifics of their most recent front page baloney.
What is really going on here? Is “the Government” listening to all our phone calls, or what? If so, those of us who call our girlfriends to arrange trysts might have legitimate fears—our wives might get a call from the NSA giving her details of the conversation. What about those of us who call our tax accountants or attorneys to conspire on how to cheat the IRS? We’re in deep shit! I could understand the outrage if that was what was going on, even though I’m not important enough to ever play any telephone chess games that would put my proverbial king en prise if they were intercepted. Well, maybe some of you are. Or maybe it’s just knowing that it’s going on that really gets under your skin. But that’s not what is going on.
What the NSA is collecting that is the subject of this folderol is telephone records—which number called which other number, when, and for how long—not telephone calls, which would require a warrant. This is essentially the same information as you get on your telephone bill every month, except for the charges. It is a huge amount of data that is intended to facilitate future efforts to detect terrorist rings by using data mining techniques.
Let’s say we catch a terrorist somewhere, sometime. With these telephone records, the NSA can process information and find others who associate with this person. Some might be innocuous contacts (embedded terrorists must present a front of a normal, integrated life), but some might also be members of that terrorist’s cell. Isn’t this something we want our law enforcement people to know? Or do we want to sit here with our thumbs up our collective ass waiting for the next 9/11 to happen?
Hey, isn’t it illegal for “the Government” to be collecting all this information? They need a warrant to do wiretapping, damnit! I know my Constitutional rights!
Stop it, already! I just told you that this latest so-called scandal is not about listening in on our domestic telephone conversations. It is about collecting telephone records. Records, damnit!
Well, um, isn’t that still illegal? Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), after all, says it’s a violation of Fourth Amendment guarantees, to wit:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Ahhh, our papers. Maybe Sen. Feinstein has a point there. However, in Smith v. Maryland (1979), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that because a person at the time of connection of his telephone service understands that a third-party (in this case, the telephone company) keeps records of calls and such records could be turned over to police upon request, those records are not subject to the guarantees of the Fourth Amendment. In that case, the police themselves had installed a recording device on a complainant’s phone line to record numbers of incoming calls, which enabled them to catch an individual who was making harassing calls and who had previously robbed the individual to whom the calls were placed. From the majority opinion, written by Justice Harry Blackmun:
…we doubt that people in general entertain any actual expectation of privacy in the numbers they dial. All telephone users realize that they must “convey” phone numbers to the telephone company, since it is through telephone company switching equipment that their calls are completed. All subscribers realize, moreover, that the phone company has facilities for making permanent records of the numbers they dial, for they see a list of their long-distance (toll) calls on their monthly bills. In fact, pen registers and similar devices are routinely used by telephone companies “for the purposes of checking billing operations, detecting fraud, and preventing violations of law.”
While that Supreme Court decision is the relevant precedent, for those of you who would like to debate it, I’ll provide some material from the dissenting opinion, written by Justice Potter Stewart (it refers to Katz, which is the 1967 landmark decision about government snooping on private telephone conversations without a warrant):
I think that the numbers dialed from a private telephone—like the conversations that occur during a call—are within the constitutional protection recognized in Katz. It seems clear to me that information obtained by pen register surveillance of a private telephone is information in which the telephone subscriber has a legitimate expectation of privacy. The information captured by such surveillance emanates from private conduct within a person’s home or office—locations that without question are entitled to Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment protection. Further, that information is an integral part of the telephonic communication that under Katz [442 U.S. 735, 748] is entitled to constitutional protection, whether or not it is captured by a trespass into such an area.
The numbers dialed from a private telephone—although certainly more prosaic than the conversation itself—are not without “content.” Most private telephone subscribers may have their own numbers listed in a publicly distributed directory, but I doubt there are any who would be happy to have broadcast to the world a list of the local or long distance numbers they have called. This is not because such a list might in some sense be incriminating, but because it easily could reveal the identities of the persons and the places called, and thus reveal the most intimate details of a person’s life.
So, there you have it, from both sides of the coin. However, Smith v. Maryland makes this the undisputed law of the land in the same manner that Roe v. Wade gives abortion proponents a leg to stand on. (Coincidentally, Justice Blackmun wrote the opinion for the majority in deciding Roe v. Wade (1973), too.)
The stakes here, too, are much higher than merely catching a thief who committed a crime against one person’s property. We’re trying to prevent another 9/11. If we catch a single terrorist who might have blown up a subway train or hijacked a commercial flight, we’ve saved hundreds of lives. What are we giving up? Numbers that many other eyes have either seen or could see if they wanted to. Do we worry about Debbie at Sprint looking at the numbers we call when she stuffs our bill into the envelope? Hell, Debbie could be an agent of Al Qaeda, for all we know, and she could be feeding those numbers to that terrorist organization. So, why do we become inflamed when The Government collects the same information? Because the media, the opposition party, and the ACLU want us to. Ignoring the law of the land, they push our hot buttons and assume that we’ll do no further research.
What do they aim to accomplish? Well, it’s an election year, and all those juicy house and senate chairmanships are up for grabs, along with the spoils that go with them. So, we can only expect the accusations and ridiculous spinning to get worse as November approaches.
I hope that you will take some time to think about this whole thing instead of reacting the way our partisan politicians would like you to react. That includes our president, who in my opinion is on the correct side of this issue, but who by acting like a bumbling idiot does little to give us great faith in his initiatives. He and the greedy, so-called moderate Republicans in the Senate are doing as much to hurt their party’s chances in November as the aforementioned mainstream media and Democrat schemers. So, ignore the Republicans, ignore the Democrats, and ignore the partisans who want to scare you into voting the way they want you to vote. Dig out the facts. Think!
Above all, remember that there are bad guys out there who believe strongly in rendering us and our way of life extinct. This, rather than personal inconvenience and high-minded ideals, should dominate our thinking.