Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Spooks are Back -- And It's Not Halloween

GAME SHOW HOST: Hello John and Jane Q. Public: it’s time once again to play “Connect the Policy Program Dots !!” – the congressional game that lets you be a virtual Member of Congress and do as many of the following as you can in 30 minutes: research, write, debate, filibuster (if a senator), possibly read before voting, investigate, and perform oversight.

The way the game works is contestants are given the name of an existing, proposed, or cancelled policy or program. They then must decide how many of the categories to work on, such as write a bill that justifies the policy in terms of expected outcome (intent); sets minimum performance standards; gives projected costs, funding source, and what other programs will be cut to pay for theirs; identify who benefits most; and picks which political action committees will be lobbying for or against the proposal. Points are awarded if a contestant can link all the elements mentioned above into a believable narrative of the political and social imperatives in play, with a 50 point bonus for holding the floor for 20 minutes. The studio audience’s choice of the winner by its applause will be worth 100 points.

Our first contestant, Jane Public, is ready. Your policy program is: TIA Begin NOW!!

JANE PUBLIC: TIA stands for Total Information Awareness. It is essentially a perpetual data-mining operation that scoops up electronic transmissions around the world In theory, it employs a series of classified filters to hone in on the conversations of terrorists or supporters of terror to learn their plans and to try to identify others who are part of the terror networks. Originally targeting conversations that either originated abroad or terminated abroad, the program became public in November 2002, at which time it caused a political storm. By the following September, the program was all but dead as Congress said no money could be spent on this kind of operation inside the U.S. But Congress did allow the executive branch to use the technology in foreign countries if the president determined there was a national security need.

The original head of the TIA was to have been Admiral John Poindexter, one of Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisors whose connection to the illegal Iran-Contra affair made him suspect in the eyes of many. The atmosphere surrounding the TIA and other surveillance programs that the Bush administration proposed as part of its “war on terror” grew noticeably colder after the White House renamed it the Terrorism Information Awareness program and attempted to re-launch it under cover of the FY 2004 annual budget submission.

But the Bush White House was determined not to surrender easily. If the policy could not be legislated, its objectives would be achieved through executive order and administrative fiat. Thus the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the FBI expanded their data-mining operations based on the invocation of the dubious premise of the unitary executive and its associated claim to broad inherent powers. In short, Bush decided that he could set aside statutes, structures, even constitutional guarantees simply by the stroke of a pen.

One such dictat bypassed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court that approves government electronic eavesdropping on U.S. persons after the expiration of the time allowed the government to conduct such surveillance without a warrant – if the government asserts a continuing need to monitor the communications.

In retrospect, TIA and FISA can be considered the warm-up for what came later. Sensing that Congress would roll over and not complain too loudly and expecting the Supreme Court would defer to the “inherent power” of the commander in chief in the conduct of the “global war on terror,” Bush decided that when Congress authorized him to “use any means” to apprehend those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, it also meant to empower him to prevent future attacks by, among other means, listening to conversations between innocent U.S. persons that originated and terminated within the U.S.

In a May 2004 General Accounting Office (GAO) report on data-mining by the federal government, the GAO found that 52 of 128 federal agencies had 199 data mining efforts, of which 131 were operational. Fourteen were targeted for intelligence and counter-terrorism purposes, 15 were directed against criminal activity, and 24 against fraud, waste, and abuse.

Now comes the “son of” TIA: a $2.4 million start-up effort funded by the Department of Homeland Defense intended to create “sentiment analysis” software that will examine what is said or written for “negative opinions of the United States or its leaders.”

Ostensibly, like NSA’s Carnivor, TIA and FISA, the objective of this development, should it come to pass, is to discover what foreigners think. But in an administration as closed off to outside influences as is the Bush White House, practically everybody not in the inner circle is a “foreigner.”

One of the reasons for having a written constitution is to specify who does what and who has what powers. In the U.S. Constitution, powers are divided among the three branches of the national government and between the federal and state levels. But there is another division that is found in the Tenth Amendment – the last in the Bill of Rights:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the
Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are
reserved for the States respectively, or to the people.”

GAME SHOW HOST: Time has expired. One question for our winner: what would be your next action if you had more time?

JANE PUBLIC: Send a copy of the Tenth Amendment to the White House and everyone running for Congress.

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