Tuesday, April 11, 2006

More Dirt Churned to the Surface in Wiregate

April 11, 2006

Alberto Gonzales took a beating from the House Judiciary Committee during an oversight hearing last Thursday, accused by Republican chairman James Sensenbrenner of “stonewalling” the body’s investigation into the NSA’s illegal domestic wiretapping program. The scope of the power which Gonzales claims for the President, however, has only widened in the face of spreading opposition.

When he announced the program’s existence in December of last year, the President claimed a limited, very specific authority to listen to phone calls between a party in the U.S. and a party in a foreign country if one party was under suspicion of terrorism. In his testimony, however, Gonzales explicitly declined to say that the President lacks the power to tap purely domestic calls placed from one place in America to another.

And with good reason, too; it turns out that such a claim would jeopardize the credibility of legal arguments Gonzales already knows he will have to make. Last week the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading cyberprivacy watchdog group, filed a class action lawsuit against AT&T for going along with the NSA’s program. Mark Klein, a former AT&T employee who is testifying for the EFF plaintiffs, says that in 2002, an NSA agent visited a San Francisco facility to discuss the installation of monitoring tools, and in January of 2003, the company began construction of a small room adjacent to its switching center.

Regular technicians were asked to route switching data from both phones and internet connections through the room while NSA personnel installed a sophisticated monitoring system inside. As he was helping to connect the regular network to the surveillance equipment, Klein learned of similar efforts in other cities, including Seattle, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Think this sounds like something from the prequel to V for Vendetta? Just wait, the fun’s not done! The company also gave the government illegal access to over 312 terabytes of subscriber information which AT&T itself has been collecting since 2001, including lists of phone numbers dialed and web pages visited. The EFF alleges that such actions violate the First and Fourth Amendments, several federal wiretapping statutes, telecommunications laws, and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

There is speculation that the Bush regime may invoke the state secrets privilege, which received a handy boost when a federal appeals court ruled in favor of a wide interpretation late last year. Under the doctrine, the government can put a stop to any legal action if it is deemed a threat to national security, even if the government isn’t a party to the suit.

This would neutralize the EFF lawsuit, but popular outrage with the criminal conduct of the administration must eventually force the issue. John Dean, an administration lawyer whose testimony helped bring down Nixon in the 70s, called the program “worse then Watergate” in a speech to the committee given about a week before the Gonzales hearing. Calls for Bush’s resignation are growing.

This story speaks for itself. I know I write an opinions column, but I think there’s as much room for “opinion” regarding this as there is regarding thermonuclear warfare: practically nobody wants it and those who do should be locked away. It feels surreal to report on a secret, illegal domestic spying program enacted by the American government against its own citizens, but it’s happening. Bad judgment in military engagements, poor choices in domestic policy, financial handouts to big businesses, a personality like an extra from Deliverance—all of these I can tolerate in a President, but for intentional misuse of executive power in an attempt to create Big Brother, Bush should be impeached and imprisoned.

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