Thursday, May 18, 2006


You know, there's this running thing with me and my parents that has to do with their belief that I told them to go rent Gangs of New York, a movie they ended up hating. Of course, it's an easy thing to pin on me, I've made my share of dubious choices culturally speaking. But I know that I never ever recommended that ass movie to anyone. That's a fact. But my parents don't believe me and they still blame me for the time they lost on that cinematic turd when the fault really lies with Martin Scorsese.

So, when I heard that Commander Cuckoo Bananas was documenting my calls through the NSA, I thought: "Sweet. Now all I have to do is FOIA that shit and get the transcripts and prove once and for all that I never ever recommended that movie to anyone." Awesome. Finally, a crazy, illegal overreach by Bush that I might be able to wring some value out of!

Ahh, but such was not to be, or at least we think. According to reports, this little instance of Bush breaking the law has resulted only in a massive database with something on the order of two trillion placed calls between U.S. citizens noting who called who when. Where's the harm in that, the conservative blogosphere says. To which I reply--pish, if you are down with this NSA program, even if it's just taking cursory notes, you can turn in your conservative credentials, never talk to me about being the party that limits bloat and keeps the federal government out of my grill ever again.

It's hard to know what to even say about this.
Well, it's illegal for starters. This wiretap/datamine whatever sidesteps the legal process in the same way the previous wiretap nonsense does. And, as has been pointed out, there's absolutely no reason to sidestep the current, agreed-upon legal process if what you want to do is pursue a criminal investigation against terrorists. FISA, is not just an effective tool, it is a nearly perfect tool. The FISA court has historically been a rubber stamp. And what's more, speed isn't an issue under FISA--you place your tap and give yourself 15 days to sort it out (and given FISA's tendencies, it's hard to imagine they'd kill you if you bent the deadline a little bit, the court's prerogative always takes precedence over deadlines anyway.

But I'm not going to revisit all of that. Suffice it to say: the absolute black-letter fact is that none of these insanely intrusive wiretap programs have improved upon the FISA process. They are all a waste of time, a waste of effort, a waste of breath if you want to effectively pursue terrorists. In fact, there is and has only ever been one reason to engage in this sort of instrusion and subvert the legal process, and that's if you want to do something that the FISA court--who typically never meet an application they don't love--is going to find patently unreasonable, like say, gathering information on people who have nothing to do with terrorism or national security or crime of any kind.

And that's what's going on. And there's no reason in the world anymore to worry about coming off as paranoid because what we've seen here is that the goalposts have moved. When the story broke on domestic wiretapping back in December, the President and his people bent over backwards to ensure us that OF COURSE they weren't spying on innocent Americans, don't be silly, don't be CRAZY. Now, we know that those assurances were all lies and that those doing the assuring were well aware that they were in the process of deceiving us. What we have here is an escalation of this criminal activity, pure and simple.

So, for everyone saying that this sort of information is no big deal for the government to have--that's not the point. There's no reason to believe that the goalposts aren't still moving--or have been moved, and there's no reason in the world to believe that this criminal activity hasn't escalated to the point that some fucknut at the NSA couldn't tell me right now that it wasn't me that recommended
Gangs of New York to my parents.

And, of course, Bush knows that this program is illegal. The same old evasive behavior has resurfaced again. He briefed the Democrats! He briefed two of the FISA judges! The buck stops somewhere else! Oh, for once and for all, so fucking what? Telling someone you are going to break the law doesn't make it less illegal. It has all the legal weight as a cup of my warm piss. Do we get to hear the legal opinion of the two FISA judges? No. And when Bush talks about "briefing the Democrats," he's talking about briefings whose attendees are legally enjoined from discussing.

If Bush was really fighting the good fight against terrorism, why doesn't he just man up and say, "Yeah. I broke the law. I did what I thought needed to be done. Go ahead and prosecute me, because I'm going to come into court with an ironclad argument as to why my actions were effective and why we had no other option at hand. Sure, let's have this out." That's what a man with courage in his convictions does. Bush is covering his ears and singing, "La la la! I don't hear you when you point out that what I'm doing is illegal! LA LA LA LA!" He's a fucking cartoon, this guy. And his actions lead, inevitably and inescapably, to one conclusion.

Maybe he's not fighting the good fight against terrorism after all.

That's what this boils down to: Just under five years ago, a few thousand Americans lost their lives. In the seventeen hundred days that have passed since, President Bush has failed to avenge these deaths. In the seventeen hundred days since that calamity, he's managed to enhance the danger we're in rather than boost our security. We've sunk a generation's wealth into deposing a tinhorn dictator who lacked the military capacity to melt ice cream and--AND!-- have cocked up that whole operation as well, so that now we're in hock up to our ears for having transformed Iraq into an al-Qaeda empowerment zone. Really. The mind just boggles.

But, Mr. President, at least you've figured out a way to know how many times I called my mom.

Goody FUCK-a-doo for you, asshole.


PK said...

As a person that used to make a living data mining, I thought I'd chime in with a few thoughts:

First, I just assumed this was happening all along. There are privacy safeguards that could be in place (e.g. encrypting all the numbers so that the patterns could be analyzed without revealing actual phone numbers to the analyst unless something interesting turned up). That's how we did it in the credit card world - and we were looking at your financial information, for the purpose of making money off of you, and it was all perfectly legal (and still is). So you'd imagine the same protections would be in place at the NSA; however, it sounds like they actually weren't. So they're fucked.

Second, this appears to be a terribly inefficient way of catching terrorists. It's just really hard to imagine that a certain frequency and pattern of calls between numbers would help them distinguish between planning a terrorist act and, say, a really big party. They want you to believe that they have 50 Good Will Huntings in there figuring stuff out by staring at these numbers and running Complicated Computer Algorithms... but those computer algorithms are much more limited than they'd have us believe.

Third, it solves the wrong problem. Most accounts of the 9/11 hijackers indicate that we knew who they were and who they were connected to, just not when they were going to do what (or where they were at all times). So a system designed to cast a wide net to find more potential suspects is pretty pointless, isn't it? Why not spend your time analyzing the calls made by your actual suspects (which I'm sure they're already doing... and nobody has a problem with).

Ironically, the biggest effect that this probably has on terrorism is that people think it's more effective than it really is. So why not talk it up? It's essentially a deterrent, a complicated scarecrow that might just make it that much more difficult to pull off another attack. We have big computer! And they're watching you! Boogaboogaboo!

The Deceiver said...

You should check out this op-ed in the New York Times, by Jonathan David Farley, science fellow at Stanford University?s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

But I'll leave you with the part that is the biggest of all the DUH's when it comes to the obvious fallacies with this data mining program:

"A second problem with the spy agency's apparent methodology lies in the way terrorist groups operate and what scientists call the "strength of weak ties." As the military scientist Robert Spulak has described it to me, you might not see your college roommate for 10 years, but if he were to call you up and ask to stay in your apartment, you'd let him. This is the principle under which sleeper cells operate: there is no communication for years. Thus for the most dangerous threats, the links between nodes that the agency is looking for simply might not exist."

This only bolsters a conclusion that, frankly, needs no bolstering: this datamining program targets something other than terrorists.

abe said...

Once again, I learn much of interest from you and your correspondents. Your blog entry, pk, and your further research on "strength of weak ties" is most interesting. Hope that this preliminary research finally begins the resolution the "Gangs of New York" imbroglio with your parents.

A. L. Deviant said...

I have been chewing on this shiznit for a while and these insights kind of frame it well for me. I have been wondering about the effectiveness and potential yield of all this domestic spying and, thanks to pk, get a much better sense of it. It also made me consider other things I am sort of aware of but, until now, haven?t thought to incorporate into the considering.

The last time I checked, there was a plethora of un-translated material by way of certified, intercepted communication from al queda suspects, etc... as well as communiqu├ęs from Osama himself that are sitting, un-translated. It strikes me that, love of number pattern fishing aside, the monies and efforts of the intelligence services of this nation are much better suited and directed towards the translation and deciphering of this latter mentioned material.

From reading Imperial Hubris and some other like literature, it appears that bin Laden and his compatriots have been pretty clear in their intentions and intended actions. Granted, there is probably a severe lack of specifics, but using their threats as limiting factors and combined with the other information they have been gathering, it shouldn't even be necessary to partake of this massive collection effort to gather our telephonic calling habits, etc...

And, if it is a psych factor thing, as far as trying to scare the terrorists, it would be a fruitless and futile effort, not to mention a gross misspending of American tax dollars. The last time I checked, the terrorists are involved in a holy war against us. Rational consideration doesn't matter to these people. So all this hoo ha is basically paying out millions of dollars to get *maybe* one piddling, crappy appetizer of information leading to *maybe* catching one guy who is so loosely tied to other sleeper cell members that, ultimately, the captured dude is more burdensome than Zacharias Massoui has been to the American tax payer.

The conspiracy of the military industrial complex, anyone?

The fog of war indeed.