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Spying on Americans

The New York Times reports that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the National Security Agency became authorized to snoop into telephone and e-mail conversations of American citizens without warrants on a limited basis.

It's hard to imagine this wouldn't turn into a turf battle with the FBI, isn't it? But as you read further into the article, you begin to realize there's a bit less here than originally met the eye. The departure from precedent is really more one of degree than of kind.

The warrantless surveillance of domestic communications requires two things: First, there must be some connection to known or alleged terrorist suspects, and second, one endpoint of the communication channel must be outside the United States.

To be sure, the job of preventing terror attacks on our homeland is daunting enough even when we are using every tool at our disposal, so I can certainly understand the reasoning here. Honestly, I wouldn't have much of a problem with this NSA policy, if

  1. There were some judicial oversight, or some other controlling authority to oversee the process.
  2. Information garnered in this fashion were used exclusively to prevent terrorist attacks, not to be used as criminal evidence in a court of law.

That the new policy allows the NSA to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court gives me some pause regarding the first point. I don't honestly have a great deal of confidence in the second point, either. Look, for example, at some of the anti-drug measures that are being injected into the Patriot Act debate.

It certainly raises some ethical issues (not to mention legal and constitutional ones) that are less than clear. Suppose, for example, that you're an NSA operative monitoring a phone conversation when you learn that a major drug deal is about to go down? What do you? For me, that's pretty straightforward. You ignore it and continue to look for terrorists.

But what if you happened to overhear specific details about a planned murder of a jealous spouse, for example? Yes, it's probably unlikely, but you have to think about these things. What do you do? Honestly, I would be hard-pressed not to act if I were in possession of such information, even if I were to do nothing but place an anonymous phone tip to the local authorities.

I think we all understand that there is ultimately a trade-off to be made between freedom and security. There are many crimes that take place on a daily basis that could be prevented if we lived in a police state. That's a greater sacrifice than we're willing to make, however.

It's not an easy job to know exactly where to draw the line, and, as in many other areas, it's only going to get more difficult as technology increases. Systems like Echelon bring up ethical issues that we couldn't have even dreamed of 20 years ago.

No one feels comfortable wading into these murky, uncharted waters. Given the current state of things, I don't see any way of avoiding it, however.


You think we got it bad, check this crazy shit out.

Far out.

i thought we were the dickheads.....

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