Friday, May 12, 2006

A Simple Issue and A Complex Character

Let's start with the simple issue: AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon handed over reams of call data to the National Security Agency, which was operating without a warrant, even though laws are in place that would have, had the NSA thought the appropriate court would have actually granted them a warrant for such data, allowed the agency to ask for the warrant from a secret court with classified records.

Some commentators claim this is a legal gray area. It isn't. In order to believe that it's legal, you have to reference a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that said that toll records are not to be considered private because everybody knows that phone companies keep such records in order to bill their customers.

To buy that argument, though, you'd also have to believe that congress never passed another telecom law after 1979. But, congress has passed new laws since then and those laws clearly say that such information can't be surrendered, even to a government agency, without a warrant.

But, but, say the gray-area believers, the companies just gave the NSA a bunch of phone numbers, with no names attached, so no harm no foul! Which would mean you'd have to believe that the NSA can't, even if it wants to, match a phone number to a phone customer. Which means you have to believe that the NSA doesn't have access to Google. This morning, I typed my home phone number into google, with NO other information. Up popped my full name and current address. Try it yourself. I'd post a link to my own search here to prove my point but... then I may as well change the name of this blog to my full name, home phone number and home address.

Those in the gray area also say that it's just records. Nobody's eavesdropping on calls without a warrant. But, at this point, shouldn't the government find some way to prove that assertion? Look, I don't really think that the NSA is listening to my phone calls. But let's look at the facts: The President said, a few months ago, that this program didn't have anything to do with domestic calls at all. That's now been proven to be a lie. The NSA, which could have asked for a warrant to get the information they wanted, didn't. So the recent record proves that both the President and the NSA will act without warrants whenever they think they can get away with it and will lie about it. Given that, why blindly believe that they haven't listened into call content without warrants?

This is simple: it was an unlawful act by both the telcos and by the government and the government has lied about it for months, divulging facts only when they become impossible to ignore.

Now for the complex character:

Former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio has long been lumped in with other executive scamsters from the telecom stock bust. He stands accused of insider trading, among other misdeeds. Let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that he's guilty. He's also the guy who, when approached by the NSA, and when told that his company could lose out on lucrative classified government contracts if he didn't comply, stood his ground and decided to follow the telecom laws that congress past since the Supreme Court's 1979 decision.

Villain or hero? Hey, people are complicated.

They're far more complicated, and I say this with apologies to any budding constitutional lawyers out there, than even the most Byzantine laws that our government enacts and enforces.


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