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The Politics of Domestic Spying

Nicholas Johnson

The Daily Iowan

January 19, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by Nicholas Johnson and The Daily Iowan, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the author and The Daily Iowan.]

President Bush's authorization of NSA spying on American citizens raises issues more deserving of books than a column. Topping the list are potential political abuses that would make President Richard Nixon's bungled burglary of the Democratic Party's Watergate offices look like a kindergarten prank.

Other issues abound.

But, let's focus on the possible political abuses. It's no longer enough to say, "Why should I care about spying, if I'm doing nothing wrong?"

The secret NSA, once said to stand for "No Such Agency," is the National Security Agency. Larger than the CIA, its surveillance technology is unrivaled. Its encryption crackers include the world's largest collection of mathematicians.

Experts on a CBS "60 Minutes" segment described how the NSA's global fish net, Echelon, covers all of Planet Earth, monitoring airwaves and optic fiber, picking up everything from e-mail and faxes to cell phones and baby monitors. Of course, even the NSA's staff isn't large enough to sort through overwhelming flows of data. So, it uses the world's largest supercomputers to pluck from that haystack the needles of programmed patterns, names, voices, key words, or phone numbers.

Originally focused overseas, Bush's secret order permitted the NSA to spy on Americans. Are your communications being spied on? Well, yes and no. Your communications are probably captured and analyzed. But the odds are they're not being spotlighted.

Why worry about potential political abuses? Because they've already occurred. Nixon's impeachment included old-fashioned wiretapping for political advantage. The "60 Minutes" Echelon experts revealed:

Today, the NSA examines billions of items. Similar "data mining" was proposed for the "Total Information Awareness" project.

If the technology is used to track drug dealers as well as terrorists, if it can help American corporations gain advantage over foreign competitors, imagine what it could do in a political campaign. If such abuses have already occurred in the past, how realistic is it to think they're not going on now?

"Trust but verify?" How would we even know if abuses occurred during our congressional and presidential elections? The NSA is, after all, an agency with virtually no transparency and oversight that secretly reports to the Commander in Chief.

In 1949, George Orwell warned us of trends he saw unfolding by 1984 - his book's title. Now, 22 years later, the NSA's technology is more powerfully intrusive than even he imagined. The slogan of Orwell's fictional government, "Big Brother is watching you," is fiction no more.

What of his main character's ultimate realization that "he loved Big Brother?" Still fiction? Or have Americans already come to accept, if not love, the NSA's "protecting us from terrorism?" Have you?

Nicholas Johnson, who held three presidential appointments in the federal government during the 1960s and 1970s, now teaches communications law at the UI College of Law and maintains