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An Easy Call: Lying

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, May 12, 2006

At least now we know that the Bush administration's name for spying on Americans without first seeking court approval -- the "terrorist surveillance program" -- isn't an exercise in Orwellian doublespeak after all. It's just a bald-faced lie.

Oh, and at least now the Senate will have a few questions to ask Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the man George W. Bush just named to head the CIA, at his confirmation hearings.

While Hayden was running the super-secret National Security Agency, according to a report yesterday in USA Today, the NSA began collecting comprehensive records of telephone calls made by "tens of millions of Americans." If your service is provided by AT&T, Verizon or BellSouth, according to the newspaper, this means your phone calls -- all the calls you've made since late 2001. Of the major phone companies, only Qwest reportedly declined to cooperate.

The allegation, which the president refused to confirm or deny, is not that the spooks are actually listening in as you call home to check on the kids or talk to the bank about refinancing your mortgage. Rather, the idea is to be able to look at a given phone number -- yours, let's say -- and see all the other numbers that you called or that called you over a given period.

No names are attached to the numbers. But a snoopy civilian with Internet access can match a name with a phone number, so imagine what the government can do.

You'll recall that when it was revealed last year that the NSA was eavesdropping on phone calls and reading e-mails without first going to court for a warrant, the president said his "terrorist surveillance program" targeted international communications in which at least one party was overseas, and then only when at least one party was suspected of some terrorist involvement. Thus no one but terrorists had anything to worry about.

Not remotely true, it turns out, unless tens of millions of Americans are members of al-Qaeda sleeper cells -- evildoers who cleverly disguise their relentless plotting as sales calls, gossip sessions and votes for Elliott on "American Idol." (One implication, by the way, is that the NSA is able to know who got voted off "Idol" before Ryan Seacrest does.)

Step back for a moment. There's an understandable tendency, with this administration, to succumb to a kind of "outrage fatigue." Pre-cooked intelligence on Iraq, secret CIA prisons, Abu Ghraib -- the accretion is numbing, and it's easy just to say "there they go again" and count the months until the Decider heads home to Texas for good. Bush and his people have tried to turn flouting the law into a virtue if it's a law they find inconvenient. They've tried to radically change our concept of privacy. We already knew the NSA was somehow monitoring phone calls, so what's the big deal?

The big deal is that now we know that the administration -- I'll say "apparently," although if the report were untrue I think the president would have denied it -- is keeping track of the phone calls of millions of citizens who have nothing at all to do with terrorism. Bush has tried to convince us that the overwhelming majority of Americans are not affected by domestic surveillance, but now we know that the opposite is true: The overwhelming majority of us are .

The president's claim, in his brief statement on the report, that the government isn't "trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans" is as disingenuous as Bill Clinton's claim that he "didn't inhale." There's no point in collecting all that information if you don't analyze it, and when you do it's inevitable that you learn things about at least some innocent people that those people thought were nobody else's business, certainly not the government's.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), his frustration evident, said he intended to call executives of AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth to testify at hearings he plans to hold, since the administration won't explain just what it's doing.

And, of course, Hayden's confirmation hearings are coming up. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has been one of Hayden's strong supporters, said the new disclosures on spying may create "a growing impediment" to a nomination that was expected to quickly sail through.

"Shame on us, in being so far behind and so willing to rubber-stamp anything this administration does," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). He was referring to the Senate, but he could have been speaking for the entire nation.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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