On Thursday, the Washington Post’s revelation of thousands upon thousands of National Security Agency violations of both the law and supposed privacy protections included this fascinating detail:
A “large number” of Americans had their telephone calls accidentally intercepted by the NSA when a top-secret order to eavesdrop on multiple phone lines for reasons of national security confused the international code for Egypt (20) with the area code for Washington (202).
I enjoy as much as the next chap all those Hollywood conspiracy thrillers about the all-powerful security state — you know the kind of thing, where the guy’s on the lam and he stops at a diner at a windswept one-stoplight hick burg in the middle of nowhere and decides to take the risk of making one 15-second call from the payphone, and as he dials the last digit there’s a click in a basement in Langley, and even as he’s saying hello the black helicopters are already descending on him. It’s heartening to know that, if I ever get taken out at a payphone, it will be because some slapdash timeserving pen-pusher mistyped the code for Malaysia (60) as that of New Hampshire (603).
The Egypt/Washington industrial-scale wrong number is almost too perfectly poignant a vignette at the end of a week in which hundreds are dead on the streets of Cairo. On the global scene, America has imploded: Its leaders have no grasp of its national interests, never mind any sense of how to achieve them. The assumption that we are in the early stages of “the post-American world” is now shared by everyone from General Sisi to Vladimir Putin. General Sisi, I should add, is Egypt’s new strongman, not Putin’s characterization of Obama. Meanwhile, in contrast to its accelerating irrelevance overseas, at home Washington’s big bloated blundering bureaucratic security state expands daily. It’s easier to crack down on 47 Elm Street than Benghazi.
Perhaps this is unavoidable. A couple of months back, I quoted Tocqueville’s prescient words from almost two centuries ago: Although absolute monarchy theoretically “clothed kings with a power almost without limits,” in practice “the details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control.” In other words, the king couldn’t do it even if he wanted to. What would happen, Tocqueville wondered, if administrative capability were to evolve to bring “the details of social life and of individual existence” within His Majesty’s oversight? That world is now upon us. Today, the king concedes he most certainly can do it, but assures us not to worry, he doesn’t really want to. “If you look at the reports,” said President Obama earlier this month, “even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden’s put forward, all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and, you know, listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s e-mails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused.”
But that was a week ago. And the “prospect” is now a reality: “actual abuse” — including “listening in on people’s phone calls” and “inappropriately reading people’s e-mails” — occurs daily. In early 2012, “actual abuse” was occurring at the rate of ten “incidents” a day — and “incident” is a term of art that can cover hundreds of violations of thousands or even millions of citizens.
Privacy is dying in all technologically advanced nations, and it may simply be a glum fact of contemporary existence that the right to live an unmonitored life is now obsolete unless one wishes to relocate to upcountry villages in Somalia or Waziristan. Nevertheless, even by the standards of other Western nations, America’s loss of privacy is deeply disturbing. Its bureaucracy is bigger and better funded, and its response to revelations of its abuse of power is to make it bigger and better funded and more bureaucratic still. For example, after multiple significant violations of the law in 2009, the NSA’s “oversight staff” was quadrupled. Quadrupled! Just like that! And what was the result of putting four times as many salaried, benefited, pensionable, fully credentialed government-licensed “overseers” in place? The rate of NSA violations increased dramatically through 2011. Who would have thought it? In the first quarter of 2012 the NSA’s executive-order violations were running at almost twice the rate of what they were in the second quarter of 2011. Maybe if they’d octupled the number of “oversight staff,” all these overseers would have been able to keep pace with the rampaging lawlessness.
Or maybe the oversight is a lot of hooey anyway. The Egyptian dialing-code fiasco, for example, was never passed on to the NSA’s “oversight staff,” but it was the subject of a “quality assurance review,” which sounds like the sort of follow-up you get when you buy a fridge from Sears. Maybe they could just have NSA customer-service representatives announcing that your call may be monitored for quality-control purposes at the start of every telephone conversation. Of course, most customer-service representatives are based in India (telephone code 91) but there’s a sporting chance the NSA would confuse it with Kansas (code 913), which could do wonders for the employment rate.
NSA personnel additionally fall under the external oversight of the FISA Amendment Act, which means the Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. A leaked document instructs NSA agents to remove all details of the “targeting rationale” except for “one short sentence” in generic language. An actual example from the leaked document:
“Mohammad Badguy was on the buddy list of al Qaeda in Mogadishu, Somalia.”
That’s way too much information. In order to comply with federal oversight, it should be amended to:
“Selector was found on buddy list of al Qaeda in Somalia.”
“Selector was found on selector list of al-Selecta in Selectistan” would probably work, too.
Okay. Well, how about this Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that has to sign off on everything? The chief judge of the FISC court, Reggie B. Walton, says that he can only “rely upon the accuracy of the information that is provided to the Court.” So, if it sounds kosher, it probably is.
I once bought my daughter a Siamese kitten in rural Québec and drove her back to my home in New Hampshire. At the border post, the guard leaned in the window and said, “You better have some paperwork for that cat.” I handed over the official form from the Ordre des médecins vétérinaires du Québec. The officer stared at it for a few seconds, and then asked, “Do you understand French?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Does this seem on the level to you?”
“Yes,” I said. She waved us through.
That’s basically what FISA court “oversight” boils down to. And, insofar as they decide it isn’t on the level, it’s usually after the fact.
What does that leave? Congressional oversight? Senator Dianne Feinstein said that she had not seen the 2012 NSA audit on its 2,776 legal violations until the Washington Post asked her about it. Which means until Edward Snowden brought it to her attention. So she’s just another rubber stamp, too. Most nations that spy on their own citizens manage to make do with one fig leaf of accountability, but in money-no-object Washington there are fig leaves without end.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that the IRS is continuing to target American citizens according to their political ideology — and that’s before they have your Obamacare records to frolic and gambol in.
But, like Obama says, it’s merely a theoretical “prospect” of abuse. You’d have to be paranoid to think it could actually happen . . .