NEW YORK--Several months ago, employees of Verizon, the company that enjoys a monopoly on local telephone service where I live, confirmed that my telephone has been tapped by the government. (Note to government: No, I won't reveal their names. No, not even if you throw me in jail. Unlike the New York Times, I protect my sources. Let's just say they're people in a position to know and leave it at that.)
"I don't mind that Bush is listening to my calls," I told the security department representative who took one of my several requests to replace the bug with a new-and-improved eavesdropping device that wouldn't generate a roar of static. "It's not like I'm calling al-Qaeda. And if they called me, I wouldn't be able to hear them because of the noise on the line."
Most Americans feel the same as me. We're not doing anything wrong, so why should we care if the government knows when we're stuck on credit card company permahold? If losing our privacy can prevent another 9/11, isn't it worth it?
No. Hell no.
First and foremost, domestic spying is not an anti-terrorism program. It is terrorism.
"We are not trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans," Bush says. But, in a carbon copy of the Total Information Awareness data-mining project that was shot down in response to a bipartisan public outcry in 2002, that's exactly what the National Security Agency is doing. As USA Today reported on May 11, the NSA purchased the complete "call-detail histories" for every customer of the biggest three phone companies: AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon. "It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," USA Today quotes a source. Your government, paying your tax dollars to companies you already paid to place calls you presumed to be private, is trying "to create a database of every call ever made."
According to the paper, the three telecommunications giants also agreed to keep the NSA updated on new calls placed by their combined 230 million customers. (Verizon and BellSouth deny the story, although close cooperation between such companies and intelligence agencies has long been well-established.)
The CIA estimates that there are between 2,000 and 10,000 al-Qaeda members worldwide. Even if there are dozen or two "sleeper cell" members in the United States, they don't use the phone unless they're complete idiots. NSA data-mining will never uncover a terrorist or terrorist plot.
Then why--why really--are government spooks sorting through our phone records? Because information is power. Calling logs, coupled with analogous databases of e-mail, wire transfer and fax transmissions, could give the FBI the information it needs to pressure a reluctant witness to turn state's evidence in a crucial case. The SEC could scan for calling clusters between corporate officials and investors in its investigations of insider trading. Politicians could neutralize their rivals by threatening to reveal their personal indiscretions.
If the NSA were truly interested in monitoring and capturing Islamist terrorists, it wouldn't give a damn about your call ordering a large pizza, half pepperoni/half onions. It would buy records from outfits like the satellite telephone company Thuraya, the dominant telecommunications provider in the remote regions of Middle East, Central and South Asia where America's enemies live. Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, uses a Thuraya.
It's hard to accept but the truth is obvious: our government doesn't want to catch the 9/11 murderers. After all, Bush could simply call his friend Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator of Pakistan who seized power as a Taliban ally, and ask him to pass the phone over the dinner table to Osama so he could get a Hellfire missile lock from a nearby Predator drone plane.
Americans' first instincts are probably correct. In the short term, most people have little to fear from the NSA data-mining and other domestic surveillance programs. Besides, there's nothing new here. During the 1990s, a Clinton-era NSA chief freely admitted to the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur that its Echelon keyword and voice-recognition software system sought to intercept "every communication in the world." Although the current administration is headed by fascists who would love to toss every Democratic voter into the ovens, they haven't yet managed to transform America into the police state of their dreams.
If I didn't believe there was still plenty of life left in our democracy, after all, would I be writing this?
Still, it is odd to hear the same Americans who would shoot their neighbor for watching them through their bedroom window say they don't care if some faceless bureaucrat listens to them have phone sex. Despite Watergate, Iran-Contra and a hundred other scandals that provide ample evidence for the opposite reaction, most Americans trust the government.
Even if you trust this government, however, there is no way to know what form of government will rule this country in the future. Someday, and this is certain, a revolution or civil disturbance or invasion will topple the system created by the Founding Fathers in 1787. Some successor regime, run by people you don't know and may not like (and more to the point may not like you), will inherit the security apparatus currently being put into place.
That's what happened in Europe during World War II. When the Germans invaded a country, they inherited its police files and other records. It was easier for the Nazis to find and arrest Jews in nations that listed their citizens' religion in their records.
Right now, you may be a Republican voter living in a red state, and you may find yourself in perfect agreement with your political leaders. What will you do if someone like me becomes president? What about my pal the radical anarchist who believes that the country's salvation lies in murdering every registered Republican? He's a smart guy. You never know.
True, some future American tyrant could order the creation of a huge database of information to track everything you do--if such a thing doesn't already exist. But why make it easy for him? It's smarter to never create such a dangerous set of records in the first place.