Six Degrees of NSA Wiretapping

If you missed Countdown with Keith Olbermann last night, you missed this:



When you‘re talking to your daughter at state college, this program cannot intercept your conversations. And when she takes a semester abroad to complete her Arabic studies, this program will not intercept your communications.

Had this program been in effect prior to 9/11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States, and we would have identified them as such.


OLBERMANN: For a reality check on that claim and everything else we heard from the Bush administration today, I‘m joined now by Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies.

Ms. Martin, thanks for being with us tonight.


OLBERMANN: That‘s a pretty bold claim there from General Hayden today, obviously an improvable one. What credibility is it given by experts in the field?

MARTIN: Well, you know, Vice President Cheney made the same statement, I think, in an effort to deflect the conversation from whether or not the president broke the law.

I mean, what General Hayden said is that we would have detected al Qaeda operatives in the United States before 9/11. But, of course, the 9/11 commission found that they did detect two al Qaeda operatives, two of the hijackers, in the United States before 9/11, they knew they were al Qaeda, and they didn‘t do anything about it.

OLBERMANN: The issue then was not finding, but knowing what to do when you find.


OLBERMANN: A question about the semantics of what we just heard General Hayden say about the domestic spying program. He said that a call to your kid at state college “cannot” be intercepted by this program, but he then said that if she‘s studying Arabic, the program “will not” intercept. Is that anything more than just somebody writing it unclearly? Or should we assume that there‘s something about “will not” that implies that in the past the program could have intercepted those calls?

MARTIN: Well, I think the problem is that the administration hasn‘t been forthcoming about who they are listening to at all. The only thing they‘ve said is, they are listening Americans without warrants who are calling overseas, and that there‘s some link to al Qaeda.

And so he‘s trying to reassure people. But, of course, if you look at the actual law and their words about what is that mean with regard to the link to al Qaeda, any American who‘s conspiring with al Qaeda, they can get a warrant on in about two seconds.

And so these people that they‘re wiretapping, and we don‘t know who they are, appear to be people who are maybe calling somebody who, in turn, is calling somebody, who then may be linked to some al Qaeda affiliate.

And that‘s apparently why they haven‘t gone to court to get a warrant do the wiretapping.

OLBERMANN: Even in—just in terms of the technology, could this domestic spying program really be targeted, as targeted, as limited, as the administration is saying? Because this is what does not add up for me. How would you know in advance that it‘s an al Qaeda operative making a phone call, sending an e-mail, making a contact in some way with somebody here?

Is there not necessarily, even if you‘re hitting a 500 percentage here, is there not some fishing around just to find out, in fact, that it‘s an al Qaeda representative calling someone?

MARTIN: Well, those are all unanswered questions, but very good questions, because, of course, the NSA does have the capability to vacuum up millions of telephone conversations and then sort them through a computer and pick out which ones some actual person is going to listen to.

And even though the law that the president is ignoring, and, in my judgment, violating is very specific, that if you have some probable cause that an American is in communication with, is involved with, al Qaeda or some other terrorist organization, you can get a secret warrant and secretly wiretap them.

So the question that hasn‘t been answered by the administration is, why didn‘t they get those warrants? Who is it that they‘re trying to wire—that they are wiretapping, who the judge wouldn‘t give them a warrant for? The judges have given them 13,000 warrants, and generally say yes when they ask.

OLBERMANN: Which question resonates more within the intelligence community, that one, or the one that the president asked today rhetorically that, of course it was legal, because if he were trying to break the law, why would he have briefed Congress?

MARTIN: Well, of course, if you—he did not brief Congress in any forthcoming way at all. In fact, Senator Rockefeller wrote Vice President Cheney a handwritten note after that briefing, saying, You told me something, I don‘t understand the significance, it was completely confused. And then you told me that I was prohibited from telling my staff or anyone else. I want more details.

He never got an answer.

And, you know, telling Congress, of course, doesn‘t matter, because the law says you may not wiretap without a warrant. And whether or not he told Congress doesn‘t make it legal.

OLBERMANN: Kate Martin, the director of the Center for National Security Studies, thanks for your perspective. Thanks for joining us tonight.

MARTIN: Thank you.

Update: MUST READ post at Unclaimed Territory!

Two Justices Don’t Make a Society

Anti-abortion rights forces see an end to Roe v. Wade just around the corner, writes Michelle Boorstein in today’s Washington Post.

Tens of thousands of abortion opponents held an upbeat rally on the cold, gray streets of downtown Washington yesterday and described what they see as a societal tide turning against the 33-year-old Roe v. Wade court decision that legalized the procedure.

“Societal tide”? Two justices don’t make a society. In fact, possibly the most remarkable thing about the abortion controversy is that, in spite of years of Sturm und Drang, opinions actually are not shifting. I believe we’re still pretty much where we were just after Roe v. Wade was decided.

Check out the archive of abortion polls at Scroll down to the ABC News/Washington Post poll asking the question, “Do you think abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases?” This table shows results going back to 1996. In June 1996, 58 percent of adults nationwide believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases; 39 percent believed it should be illegal in all or most cases. In December 2005, 57 percent believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 40 percent believed it should be illegal in all or most cases. Given a 3 percent margin of error, this shows that over the past decade there has been no change at all.

If you scroll even further down, you can find a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll that goes back to 1975. This poll asked the question “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?” Let’s compare April 1975 to November 2005:


Always legal — 21 percent
Sometimes legal — 54 percent
Always illegal — 22 percent


Always legal — 26 percent
Sometimes legal — 56 percent
Always illegal — 16 percent

If anything, the Fetus People lost ground somewhere.

Back to Boorstein:

Demonstrators at the annual March for Life said their movement has been buoyed by two recent Supreme Court nominees — one of them confirmed — who appear open to reconsidering the 1973 decision. They talked optimistically about how technological advances are producing clearer sonograms, which could make it harder to argue that a fetus is not a person.

Life Magazine ran its famous photographs of fetii in utero in April 1966. These photos and others like them have been around for 40 years. And the dingbats are talking about better sonograms?

You’ll like this part:

And they noted yesterday’s large turnout of young people, who filled the march route along Constitution Avenue and lined the walls outside the Supreme Court in cheerleader jackets, black leather outfits with studs and T-shirts that read, “Abortion is Mean” and “Sex is good, the pill is not.” [emphasis added]

You see the problem.

In the February 9 New York Review of Books, historian Gary Wills reviews Jimmy Carter’s Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis. Here’s a snip:

On abortion, for instance, Carter argues that a “pro-life” dogmatism defeats human life and values at many turns. Carter is opposed to abortion, as what he calls a tragedy “brought about by a combination of human errors.” But the “pro-life” forces compound rather than reduce the errors. The most common abortions, and the most common reasons cited for undergoing them, are caused by economic pressure compounded by ignorance.

Yet the anti-life movement that calls itself pro-life protects ignorance by opposing family planning, sex education, and informed use of contraceptives, tactics that not only increase the likelihood of abortion but tragedies like AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The rigid system of the “pro-life” movement makes poverty harsher as well, with low minimum wages, opposition to maternity leaves, and lack of health services and insurance. In combination, these policies make ideal conditions for promoting abortion, as one can see from the contrast with countries that do have sex education and medical insurance. Carter writes:

    Canadian and European young people are about equally active sexually, but, deprived of proper sex education, American girls are five times as likely to have a baby as French girls, seven times as likely to have an abortion, and seventy times as likely to have gonorrhea as girls in the Netherlands. Also, the incidence of HIV/ AIDS among American teenagers is five times that of the same age group in Germany…. It has long been known that there are fewer abortions in nations where prospective mothers have access to contraceptives, the assurance that they and their babies will have good health care, and at least enough income to meet their basic needs.

The result of a rigid fundamentalism combined with poverty and ignorance can be seen where the law forbids abortion:

    In some predominantly Roman Catholic countries where all abortions are illegal and few social services are available, such as Peru, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, the abortion rate is fifty per thousand. According to the World Health Organization, this is the highest ratio of unsafe abortions [in the world].

A New York Times article that came out after Carter’s book appeared further confirms what he is saying: “Four million abortions, most of them illegal, take place in Latin America annually, the United Nations reports, and up to 5,000 women are believed to die each year from complications from abortions.“[*] This takes place in countries where churches and schools teach abstinence as the only form of contraception—demonstrating conclusively the ineffectiveness of that kind of program.

By contrast, in the United States, where abortion is legal and sex education is broader, the abortion rate reached a twenty-four-year low during the 1990s. Yet the ironically named “pro-life” movement would return the United States to the condition of Chile or Colombia. And not only that, the fundamentalists try to impose the anti-life program in other countries by refusing foreign aid to programs that teach family planning, safe sex, and contraceptive knowledge. They also oppose life-saving advances through the use of stem cell research. With friends like these, “life” is in thrall to death. Carter finds these results neither loving (in religious terms) nor just (in political terms).

Be sure to read the whole review; you’ll enjoy it. I’d also like to point out that Wills is a Catholic and Carter an evangelical, proving that not all religious people are whackjobs.

Back to Boorstein:

“This is the beginning of the end. We’ll look back at some point soon and won’t believe that people were ever killing babies like it was nothing,” said Ryan McAlpin, 19, who came from Chicago with a group of friends.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute provides a wealth of information on abortion and abortion law worldwide. I’ve spent considerable time there and have yet to find an example — in the past 30 or so years, anyway — of a nation criminalizing abortion in a place where it was once legal. Abortion has been decriminalized in many nations, but not the other way around. Worldwide, the societal tide is clearly with choice, not against it.

One more bit from Boorstein:

Joe Giganti, a spokesman for the action center, said more Americans are starting to question the notion that Roe is settled law. “I’d say the mood has changed significantly just in the past year,” he said. “We’re going to see the overturning of Roe .”

Back to According to a, NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in December 2005, 66 percent of adults nationwide support keeping Roe v. Wade as settled law; only 30 percent want it overturned. I’d say Joe Giganti is celebrating a little too soon.

In the long term, even if Roe v. Wade were overturned and a whole mess of states criminalized abortion the next day, the overwhelming force of public opinion would eventually set things right again to make abortion legal. That is, unless the United States isn’t converted into a fundie theocracy, in which case all bets are off. And in that case abortion law will be the least of our problems.

Update: See also feministing and Digby.