Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Lies, damn lies, and red herrings

On June 7, president Obama said, referring to the then-breaking news about the NSA wiretapping program, that "every member of Congress has been briefed on this program [emphasis added]."  Turns out this was not true.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters in the Capitol Monday that as the top-ranking Republican on last year's Homeland Security Committee, she expected she would have been briefed on the National Security Agency's PRISM surveillance program, but was not. Even as a member of this session's intelligence committee, she said, she had not been briefed before the panoramic snooping program run by the NSA was revealed by The Guardian last week. 
Collins said the Obama administration's argument that she could have requested a briefing falls short, because she had no knowledge on which to base a request. "How can you ask when you don't know the program exists?" Collins wondered, chuckling at the absurdity. 
As Collins said she understands it, Senate leaders and the top intelligence committee members got briefings [but] "The rest of us did not..."
Now, Collins is a Republican.  Republicans will say anything to make the president look bad, so she may be lying.  But there's something else the president said that is also (almost certainly) untrue:
With respect to the Internet and emails, this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.
There is simply no way to tell in general who an email account belongs to, so there's no way to know whether a particular email account belongs to a U.S. citizen or not, or whether the owner of the account lives in the U.S.  If you think about it, the idea that the government does not spy on "people living in the U.S." is absurd on its face.  If a known terrorist is living in the U.S. do you really believe that the NSA would refuse to spy on that person just because they happen to be here instead of overseas?

To be fair, I don't think Obama consciously lied about this.  He was probably told that this is true by someone that he trusts, and he repeated that information.  But this is not an excuse.  The responsibility is still ultimately his to hire people who will provide him with accurate information, and to educate himself enough so that he can tell when someone is bald-facedly lying to him.  This is the perfect example of why everyone needs at least a basic understanding of how the internet works.  Otherwise we're sitting ducks for flim-flammery like this.

But all this is really beside the point.  The most important part of this debate seems to have gotten completely lost: this is not about spying.  This is about warrants.  The government should be allowed to spy on U.S. citizens and residents, but they should have to get a warrant first.  From a real judge, not a FISA sock puppet.

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