Sunday, February 05, 2006

Bush: Gone fishing

A very revealing article in Sunday's Washington Post indicates that the Bush administration's infamous warrantless surveillance program is nothing but a big fishing expedition that turned up little in the way of actionable leads in relation to the useless leads it produced.

And, according to many legal analysts who have studied the matter, this is a major problem in relation to both the probable cause and the reasonable basis provisions in the Fourth Amendment.

Fewer than 10 U.S. citizens or residents a year, according to an authoritative account, have aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls, as well. That step still requires a warrant from a federal judge, for which the government must supply evidence of probable cause.

The Bush administration refuses to say -- in public or in closed session of Congress -- how many Americans in the past four years have had their conversations recorded or their e-mails read by intelligence analysts without court authority. Two knowledgeable sources placed that number in the thousands; one of them, more specific, said about 5,000.

The program has touched many more Americans than that. Surveillance takes place in several stages, officials said, the earliest by machine. Computer-controlled systems collect and sift basic information about hundreds of thousands of faxes, e-mails and telephone calls into and out of the United States before selecting the ones for scrutiny by human eyes and ears.

Successive stages of filtering grow more intrusive as artificial intelligence systems rank voice and data traffic in order of likeliest interest to human analysts. But intelligence officers, who test the computer judgments by listening initially to brief fragments of conversation, "wash out" most of the leads within days or weeks.

The scale of warrantless surveillance, and the high proportion of bystanders swept in, sheds new light on Bush's circumvention of the courts. National security lawyers, in and out of government, said the washout rate raised fresh doubts about the program's lawfulness under the Fourth Amendment, because a search cannot be judged "reasonable" if it is based on evidence that experience shows to be unreliable. Other officials said the disclosures might shift the terms of public debate, altering perceptions about the balance between privacy lost and security gained.

Hmmm. Sounds like a problem to me.

The article goes on to talk about a variety of mechanical methods of obtaining and sifting through communications. And by the sound of it, the government may be well on its way to sifting through ALL of our communications for tidbits of useful information. If they're looking for legitimate terrorist threats, that's one thing. But it opens an entirely new can of worms if the government - or certain elements within that government - decides to look for something else altogether.

Do you trust your government to do only the "right" thing with all of this information? I don't.


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