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What Would Dirty Harry Do?

By framing the eavesdropping debate as a manly-man contest, Bush & Co. are distracting us from the conversation we should be having about privacy.

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Illustration by Jeanne Verdoux  

I was 13 in 1967, so I know, man: Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep, it starts when you’re always afraid, step out of line, the man come and take you away.

But in fact, I’ve never tended to overworry privacy. Sure, it’s creepy when Word is open on both of my computers at once and Microsoft messages me to say that isn’t allowed, then automatically shuts down one of the programs. And I’m glad I don’t have an employer who can monitor my e-mails. But I recite credit-card numbers over a cell phone. It doesn’t spook me that the streets of this city are rife with surveillance cameras, and that the police can track me by means of my MetroCard. At home, unless I happen to be cooking a batch of methamphetamine or counting my Krugerrand horde, I never close the curtains or pull the shades.

I consider myself a civil libertarian, but not an absolutist. Most of us are willing to trade some liberty for some safety; the Bill of Rights isn’t a suicide pact. In my view, for instance, the Second Amendment shouldn’t cover handguns. And since 9/11, I’ve gone squishy as well on the Fourth, the one prohibiting “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Examining subway passengers’ backpacks for bombs seems pretty reasonable to me.

But the succession of revelations this last month—the four years of domestic spying by the National Security Agency, the routine surveillance of political demonstrations by New York cops posing as demonstrators, the FBI monitoring vegans and petans, now the Justice Department’s drift-net subpoenas for records of Internet-pornography searches—is disturbing. However, it would be a mistake if we let the issue be cast only as an argument between proto-fascist (or heroic) Republicans and fussbudgety (or heroic) liberals, between the NSA and the ACLU. The really troubling thread running through all these cases is their arrant, misguided stupidity. To me, the excess and gratuitous sneakiness are more appalling—and dangerous—than any invasion of privacy or chilling effect on freedom of speech.

The police and FBI stories didn’t get much play—in part because they were too plainly ludicrous to incite a critical mass of serious outrage. Both, however, illustrate incomprehensibly poor judgment about the post-9/11 allocation of resources. I badly want to believe that Ray Kelly’s 1,000-person counterterrorism division is nimble, gold-standard—but it does not inspire confidence that the NYPD considers it vital that cops infiltrate the monthly bicycle-riding demonstrations of a green group. And even as we were digesting the news of FBI agents fretting over llama-fur protests, senior FBI officials were complaining to the Times that they just didn’t have the manpower to check out all the counterterrorism leads the NSA was giving them.

The NSA’s eavesdropping project is a vastly more problematic issue. Unlike the cloddish Red Squad–redux shenanigans of the cops and FBI, which were ineffective and pointless but perfectly legal, it may have been effective and worthwhile—and illegal.

The key question is why the administration decided to conduct those operations ad hoc and in secret. Why didn’t they get warrants from closed sessions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which exists for just such purposes? The court has turned down exactly five of the government’s 19,000 requests in its 28 years of existence.

According to Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the excellent new book Chatter: Dispatches From the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, the NSA was engaging in “the kind of connecting the dots that we failed to do” with the 9/11 hijackers. In other words, supercomputerized counterterrorism like on 24—like we want it to work in real life. And indeed, the eavesdropping did lead to the 2003 arrest of would-be Brooklyn Bridge terrorist Iyman Faris.

Keefe speculates that the NSA program “was a kind of highly evolved social-networking experiment: You start with a single party to a phone call, and ask who that person is calling, and who are all of those people calling, and so radiate outward.” Such a process is exponential, leading quickly to many thousands of new names to check out. And so the administration decided that this unaccustomed flood of intercepts made the existing legal protocols too cumbersome. But back in the freaked-out, total-national-security-consensus, USA Patriot Act days of 2001 and 2002, Congress surely would have enacted any necessary adjustments. And the post hoc keep-it-secret-from-the-terrorists argument is specious.

No, the most powerful motivation to go the shadowy black-world route, I think, was that T-crossing and I-dotting and congressional and judicial oversight are for pussies. The administration’s post-9/11 M.O. has been to plunge ahead unilaterally, heedlessly—ready-fire-aim. The legal iffiness of the NSA project was probably an unspoken plus for Bush and company, a confirmation of their James Bond boldness and unfettered executive potency.


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