Politics & Policy

The Big Brother on Capitol Hill

Is the NSA the government's only data miner?

Big Brother is watching you. Collecting your names and addresses. Mapping out your telephone numbers and e-mail address. Making note of your interests. Paying close attention to how you spend your money.

Big Brother is folding these bits of information about you and millions upon millions of your fellow Americans, and–you’d better be sitting down for this part–entering it into searchable databases.

Then, worse yet, it is using sophisticated computer programs to develop targeted strategies about how to deal with you in every aspect of your personal life.

What’s that? You think you already read all about that in a hyperventilating, instant-Pulitzer-nominee report in Thursday’s USA Today? Dream on. The hysterical USA Story doesn’t describe anything nearly that intrusive.

After all, if you wade through all the layers of reporter Leslie Cauley’s conscious misdirection–including the silly observations about government failing to seek judicial warrants before obtaining non-private information for which government has never been required to get warrants–you will learn that scrupulous measures were actually taken by the National Security Agency and cooperating telephone companies to withhold customer names, street addresses and other personal identifiers from the government.

No, I’m not talking about the Big Brother at the NSA. Or the big Big Brother in the Oval Office.

I’m talking about the 535 Big Brothers (and Sisters) in Congress.

Getting elected to Congress is hard work. It is rivaled only by every incumbent’s dearest preoccupation: remaining in congress. It takes untold hours of dedicated labor by highly motivated staffs and party organizations. It takes the expertise of outside experts. It takes meticulous research into the predilections of likely voters. And, most of all, it takes money. Lots of money.

In modern American politics, that requires a fair amount of data mining–the very same bane of our existence that currently has the usual suspects in Congress posturing about whether President Bush should merely be impeached or drawn-and-quartered at high noon.

These self-styled champions of our liberties and our privacy are promising to turn the upcoming confirmation hearings of General Michael Hayden–a brilliantly accomplished air force officer, former NSA chief, and current deputy National Intelligence director–into a firefight over wartime-surveillance efforts.

General Hayden, of course, has apparently helped design a lawful surveillance program and a lawful data-mining system for the nefarious purpose of … trying to keep us all alive. His efforts respond to the challenge of a vicious enemy–one that has killed massively and assures us it is spending every waking moment scheming to do so again.

Hayden doesn’t have anything on his plate nearly as important as getting members of Congress reelected.

So if we’re going to have a national conversation about government data mining, by all means let’s have it. But let’s not just put the administration and General Hayden under the microscope.

Let’s examine the practices of the opposition that purports to find warehousing information and tracking data about American citizens to be the death-knell of liberty.

Let’s take a hard look at the elected officials who are taking a hard look at the NSA.

Here are a just a few questions we might ask Democratic-party chairman Howard Dean and the members of the judiciary and intelligence committees currently grousing for the cameras:

  • Do you maintain databases of American citizens for fundraising purposes?
  • Do those databases contain names, addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and other identifying information?
  • Do the databases contain information about the interests of the citizens who have been entered into them? About candidates or causes to which they have previously donated money?
  • Are those databases searchable? If so, what search criteria do you use to divide these American citizens into various categories?
  • Do you do targeted mailings for purposes of raising funds or pushing particular issues?
  • When you target, how do you know whom to target? That is, what kind of information do you maintain in your databases to guide you about which potential donors or voters might be fruitful to tap on which particular issues?
  • Do you trade information about American citizens with other politicians and organizations in the expectation that they might reciprocate and you all might mutually exploit the benefits?

I’m betting the answers to these questions might prove pretty interesting. Hard as this may be to comprehend, we may even find that our Big Brother on Capitol Hill has been collecting information on all of us … without (gasp!) judicial warrants.

Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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