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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Qwest for freedom?

Dale Carpenter at the Volokh Conspiracy and Radley Balko are among the bloggers who champion Qwest for being named by USA Today as the only telcom to refuse to turn over its phone records to the NSA.

Jeff Goldstein at Protein Wisdom has another take: Qwest, you see, is helping the terrorists:
[W]ere I a terrorist (the exploding kind, not just an evil Bush Kultist whose terrorist-tendencies include a desire to destroy the Constitution and roll-back civil liberties to the salad days when women and blacks couldn’t interfere with government), I might think about switching to Qwest, after reading this piece.

Which is great for Qwest, I suppose, but not so great for national security.

First of all, this story is not new. I wrote about it on April 21, in a post called ATT: Can we hear you know? (You'd better believe it). As others have noted, it's a little interesting that USA Today would choose to run its story right after the nomination of former NSA chief Michael Hayden for the CIA directorship.

But that aside, is the NSA's program a necessary evil brought on by the Global War on Terror, or is it an unwarranted* intrusion into the privacy of American citizens?

Here's what I wrote on 4/21:
I know I'm not the first to say this, but this, for me, is a tough issue on which to stake out an opinion. On the one hand, I'm a cranky and cantankerous libertarian who finds the idea of the NSA tapping into, or data mining, the conversations and emails of American citizens abhorrent. I'm a privacy nut who uses encryption in my emails, an NSA-level secure file shredder program to delete computer files, and various programs to hide or disguise my IP address while I'm online. So I should be completely opposed to President Bush, without any judicial oversight, ordering the NSA to "spy on" US citizens, and to AT&T and other companies that voluntarily assist the NSA's efforts.

But then there's that pesky "other hand." The other hand says that, cliched though it may be, 9/11 really did change everything, and we are at war with people who will stop at nothing in their attempts to kill or subjugate us, and if the worst thing most of us have to deal with is the government taking a "key word" peek at our emails or phone conversations, so be it. Better that than another well-coordinated terrorist attack on America.

I think what bothers me the most is not that this data mining, or wiretapping, or whatever you want to call it, is going on now: it's the sense that once you open this Pandora's box of government intrusion, it becomes really tough - if not impossible - to close it back up. And conversely, it becomes much easier for the government to lift the lid a little bit more to get a bigger peek inside, and then a little bit more because there's a shadow over that one spot, and then just a little bit more for reasons we can't tell you right now but trust us they're important, until finally the top is completely off the box because it really is best that the government see everything, and if you haven't done anything wrong you've got nothing to worry about, and raising your voice in opposition to this obviously means that you've got something to hide, so we better take an extra close look at you, maybe in private somewhere.
Is it a big deal that the NSA is collecting phone records in order to analyze call patterns, and doing so without a warrant? Probably not, in and of itself. (It's at least as troubling that the phone companies are maintaining these huge databases, by the way.) But watch out, because that slope starts getting real slippery real soon. I suppose a lot of it comes down to whether or not you're okay with putting your trust in the NSA and the Bush administration to go only so far. And as Andrew Sullivan notes:
You don't abandon limited government, enable torture, declare the executive above the law, pile up countless signing statements to undermine the Congress ... and then take pains to protect Americans' privacy.
At some point, invoking 9/11 and the war on terror becomes nothing but an empty excuse. Many on the left want to pretend that this started happening on 9/12, but those of us who live in the real world actually had to do some real thinking and make a real choice. I know many libertarian-leaning Americans, including yours truly, chose to suspend their natural instincts and cut President Bush some slack. But the President needs to realize that you can only go to the "trust me" well so often before your water runs dry.

And as far as Qwest goes, I salute them for not turning over their records because they were unsure of the legality of the NSA's request. But I don't condemn out of hand the other telcoms for believing that in acquiescing to the NSA's request, they were doing what's best for America. How's that for having it both ways?

*Unless othterwise noted, all puns are intended.

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