But Bush made two parse-able points in reacting to
USA Today’s story about the National Security Agency building a vast
database of domestic phone calls. “We’re not mining or trolling through
the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans,” Bush said, adding
“the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our
In his brief remarks, however, Bush didn’t define
what he meant by “ordinary Americans” nor whether the data-mining might
cover, say, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people, just not
For instance, would a journalist covering national
security be regarded as an “ordinary American”? What about a political
opponent or an anti-war activist who has criticized administration
policies in the Middle East? Such “unordinary” people might number in
the tens of thousands, but perhaps not into the millions.
Also, isn’t it reasonable to suspect that the Bush
administration would be tempted to tap into its huge database to, say,
check on who might have been calling reporters at the New York Times,
the Washington Post, the New Yorker – or now USA Today – where
significant national security stories have been published?
Or during Campaign 2004, wouldn’t the White House
political apparatchiks have been eager to know whether, say, Sen. John
Kerry had been in touch with foreign officials who might have confided
that they were worried about Bush gaining a second term?
Or what about calls to and from special prosecutor
Patrick Fitzgerald while he investigates a White House leak of the
identity of Valerie Plame, the CIA officer married to former Ambassador
Joseph Wilson, an Iraq War critic?
What if one of these “unordinary” Americans had
placed a lot of calls to an illicit lover or a psychiatrist? Wouldn’t
Bush’s aggressive political operatives know just how to make the most of
While such concerns might seem paranoid to some
observers, Bush has blurred his political fortunes with the national
interest before, such as his authorization to Vice President Dick
Cheney’s staff in mid-2003 to put out classified material on Iraq’s
weapons of mass destruction to undercut Ambassador Wilson.
Though Plame was an undercover CIA officer working
on sensitive WMD investigations, her classified identity was bandied
about – and ultimately disclosed – by the likes of White House political
adviser Karl Rove, who had no real “need to know” a discrete
intelligence secret that sensitive.
In a court filing on April 5, 2006, Fitzgerald said
his investigation uncovered government documents that “could be
characterized as reflecting a plan to discredit, punish, or seek revenge
against Mr. Wilson” because of his criticism of the administration’s
handling of the evidence on Iraq’s alleged pursuit of enriched uranium
There are also historical reasons to suspect that
the administration might be inclined to use its huge database against
its critics. Some senior administration officials, such as Cheney, held
key government jobs in the 1970s when one of the goals of spying on
Americans was to ferret out suspected links between U.S. dissidents and
It had become an article of faith for some
government officials that the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam
War protests must have been orchestrated and financed by some
international enemy of the United States.
Some of the excesses in those investigations, such
as the bugging of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and break-ins
targeting Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, led to new laws in the
1970s limiting the power of the Executive.
For instance, in 1978, Congress enacted the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act, which tried to balance the government’s
legitimate interest in tracking foreign agents and the citizens’
constitutional right of protection against unreasonable searches.
However, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks,
Bush asserted “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as Commander in Chief
and brushed aside legal requirements that the government obtain a
warrant through a special FISA court before eavesdropping on phone calls
inside the United States.
After making that decision, Bush lied to conceal
what he had done. On April 20, 2004, he
told a crowd in Buffalo, N.Y., that
warrants were still required for all wiretaps.
“By the way, any time you hear the United States
government talking about wiretap, it requires – a wiretap requires a
court order,” Bush said. “Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re
talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a
court order before we do so.”
After the New York Times disclosed the warrantless
wiretapping program in December 2005, Bush continued to misrepresent the
program, calling it “limited” to “taking known al-Qaeda numbers –
numbers from known al-Qaeda people – and just trying to find out why the
phone calls are being made.”
In his folksy style, he told an audience in Louisville, Kentucky, on
Jan. 11, 2006, that “it seems like to me that if somebody is talking to
al-Qaeda, we want to know why.”
But the program that Bush described could easily have been accomplished
through warrants under the FISA law, which lets the government wiretap
for 72 hours before going to a secret court for a warrant.
Even before the USA Today disclosure on May 11, 2006, it was clear that
Bush’s spying program was much larger than he had let on. Indeed, the
operation was reportedly big enough to generate thousands of tips each
month, which were passed on to the FBI.
“But virtually all of [the tips], current and former officials say, led
to dead ends or innocent Americans,” the New York Times reported. “FBI
officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency that the unfiltered
information was swamping investigators. … Some FBI officials and
prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews
by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans’ privacy.” [NYT, Jan.
Also, undermining Bush’s claims about the limited
nature of the NSA’s activities is why the administration would need to
possess the complete phone records of the 200 million customers of AT&T,
Verizon and BellSouth – if the government were only conducting what Bush
and his aides have called a “targeted terrorist surveillance program.”
(Qwest, a Colorado-based company with about 14
million customers, refused to turn over its records to the government
because there was no court order, USA Today reported.)
The stated goal of tracking phone numbers that had
been called by al-Qaeda operatives could be easily done with warrants
from the FISA court. There would be no need to compile every personal
and business call made by 200 million Americans.
“It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” one person told
USA Today. The program’s goal is “to create a database of every call
ever made” within the nation's borders, the person said. [USA
Today, May 11, 2006]
In describing Bush’s policies over the past several
years, the word “Orwellian” has sometimes been overused. But a
government decision to electronically warehouse the trillions of phone
numbers called by its citizens over their lifetimes is the essence of
George Orwell’s Big Brother nightmare.