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Saturday, December 24, 2005

How Many Wrong Numbers?

If you aren't reading William Arkin's Early Warning blog in the WaPo, you really ought to be. Arkin concentrates in the national security arena, and his blog makes some of the more intricate matters in the news lately very accessible to the non-techies of the world (including yours truly).

In the last couple of days, he's covered some issues that deserve more attention. Thursday's column sheds some light on the Pentagon's TALON database, and its foray into illegal activity via its JPEN compilation of data gleaned from the initial surveillance. What this means in plain English is that the Pentagon is keeping a massive database of antiwar protestors and other folks it deems to be questionable, well beyond the allowable time for collecting that information. And despite knowing that this is illegal activity, the Pentagon hopes to do a broader and more in depth database in the future.

Friday's column covered Section 126 of the Reauthorization of the Patriot Act, a section hastily added by the House to cover data-mining operations done by the government and adding in some oversight initiatives for the Congress thereon. Arkin surmises that the surveillance which has been ongoing in the NSA/DoJ authorized expansion since 9/11 is massive, broad, and is pretty much monitoring everyone in the hope of catching someone in the vast net.

The NYTimes has more on the data-mining operation, and it is vast.
The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries, they said.

As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said.
There is a tremendous amount of information in the article, including the fact that the FISA court was briefed on portions of this and raised concerns about legality and whether or not they were even empowered to legally monitor parts of what was being done by the Administration. One big question in my mind is how Congress sat back and allowed the technology to clearly outstrip the law.

Note to members of Congress: before you finalize the Patriot Act provision or any other law relating to these issues, you might want to contemplate whether what you are asking for in terms of oversight is activity that is even legal. Then, you might want to ask yourself the question Mark Kleiman asks:
Does the President have the Constitutional authority to violate criminal laws whenever he judges, in his sole discretion, that those laws might interfere with defending the country?
If your answer to this question is yes, then you might want to consider whether Congress is entirely superfluous, and whether your salaries, perks, and other benefits might be put to better use paying people who would actually be willing to do the job.