The Senate can’t manage to wrangle a deal on the debt ceiling. The Senate can’t manage to wrangle a deal on the fiscal cliff.
The Senate can manage to extend domestic warrantless surveillance until 2017, though. Bipartisan vote. 73 yeas! The Congressional website is always late to the party, and nobody who reports on these things ever actually provides you a list of who voted how because our political reporting is almost as bad as our science reporting… but I’ll update this post when I get a real voting record.
In May 2012, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) sent a letter to the National Security Agency asking for an estimate on just how many Americans have been targeted since the FAA went on the books. In response, Inspector General I. Charles McCullough replied that honoring their request would be “beyond the capacity” of the office, and that “dedicating sufficient additional resources would likely impede the NSA’s mission.”
“All that Senator Udall and I are asking for is a ballpark estimate of how many Americans have been monitored under this law, and it is disappointing that the Inspectors General cannot provide it,” Sen. Wyden told Wired’s Danger Room back in June. “If no one will even estimate how many Americans have had their communications collected under this law then it is all the more important that Congress act to close the ‘back door searches’ loophole, to keep the government from searching for Americans’ phone calls and emails without a warrant.”
The reason they can’t provide an estimate, Senator Wyden, is because they’re collecting basically all of it. Computers are pre-sorting the vast majority of it, but the rules that do the sorting are written by humans, and they aren’t encoded as, “Only separate out the stuff that terrorists write”, because you can’t program that way unless you know who the terrorist are… and of course, you don’t. Instead, they’re very likely encoded using the same sort of rules-based presorting and Baysian programming that operates your spam filter.
The problem with that, of course, is that we don’t have a really large corpus of “terrorist communications”, the way we have gobs and gobs of samples of email spam (seriously, ask me sometimes how much spam our mail cluster rejects). So it’s more than fairly certain that at some point, any email that you wrote that contained the right set of words… wound up flagged and marked and stored. Since you (for most “you”) isn’t likely to be a terrorist, it’s just sitting on a disk, somewhere. That somewhere will likely soon be here. It will be there probably for quite some time.
Probably nobody will ever look at it. But it’s there, a piece of cherry-picked “evidence”, using the most egregiously bad form of cherry-picking… picking something that looks like it could be suspicious.
On Thursday this week, Sen. Wyden echoed his concerns from earlier this year by warning that the threat to the Americans’ privacy “has been real and it is not hypothetical.” (ed. note: link not in the original story)
The law should not be “an ‘end run’ around traditional warrant requirements and conduct backdoor searches for American’s communications,” he urged.
Even though Sen. Wyden sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he says he has been told next to nothing about how FISA is used to target Americans. During Thursday’s debate, though, the committee’s chairperson, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), rebuffed Wyden’s concerns.
I’ve already informed the senior senator for California that she can not expect my vote nor my money, quite a long time ago actually (beating on this story was a routine topic over at my old blog). Withdrawing my support for the Democrats as currently incarnated apparently had little effect, imagine my overwhelming surprise. (edited to add) Salon’s take here, some good background links in that piece. (/edited)
I encourage everyone who reads this blog to check their senator’s voting record on this long and drawn out political drama. I also encourage you to stop voting for those who have approved this legislation and its various incarnations over the last decade.
Just stop passively agreeing to let your country dragnet the entire Internet out of its collective paranoia about terrorism.
It feels so good when you stop.