GADFLY: Is the Snooping Aimed at Al Quaida -- or at Us? 

The question arises: what is the government's (and, in particular, the Bush administration's) motivation for its domestic surveillance and recently revealed telephone data gathering programs? Oh sure, they say it's to catch terrorists (so much for the validity of the "fighting them over there so we won't have to fight them over here" mantra). But it's pretty obvious by now that the government hasn't needed (and doesn't need) to break the law to catch terrorists. Indeed, the times it's broken the law, like by using torture on the real perpetrators of 9/11 it has in its custody (e.g., Khalid Sheikh Mohammad,  it's tainted its ability to prosecute those perpetrators, thus thoroughly botching its "war on terror." So, what are they really up to?

As reported by the New York Times several months ago, domestic surveillance has been a bust. In a January article, the Times reported that

More than a dozen current and former law enforcement and counter-terrorism officials, including some in the small circle who knew of the secret program and how it played out at the F.B.I., said the torrent of tips led them to few potential terrorists inside the country they did not know of from other sources and diverted agents from counter-terrorism work they viewed as more productive.

It also reported that the FBI director, Robert Mueller, had concerns about the legal underpinnings of the program, but deferred to the Justice Department's opinions that it was legal.

So, if all the spooky stuff the NSA is inflicting on us isn't helping fight the "war on terror," what's it doing? We already know that our government is spying on political groups it finds objectionable (i.e., ones that are against the war in Iraq). The Pentagon has been targeting anti-war groups, including the peace-loving (and therefore subversive) Quakers, for its own surveillance program. And now we're finding out that the government also has the press under surveillance because, heavens to Betsy, the press is revealing all the ways the government is violating laws, invading our privacy, and subverting our entire constitutional form of government. But that, of course, is also revealing our tactics to the "enemy," and compromising our national security, to hear Bush and his flacks (including the mainstream media) tell it. Never mind that the real compromise of our national security is precisely the tactics being used by our renegade government. As Frank Rich put it in his recent column:

It's the recklessness at the top of our government, not the press's exposure of it, that has truly aided the enemy, put American lives at risk and potentially sabotaged national security. That's where the buck stops, and if there's to be a witch hunt for traitors, that's where it should begin.

The pattern is pretty clear, isn't it? This isn't about fighting terror. It's about fighting a different enemy: dissent. War is good, for some folks. This one's been good for the military/industrial complex. Exxon has made a killing (excuse the expression), as has Haliburton (and, in the process, its prodigal son, Dick Cheney. So, anyone who threatens the welfare the war represents must be stopped. Under that theory, everyone is potentially an enemy of this administration (or at least the 2/3 of the American populace who oppose the war are its enemies), and therefore many millions of us are suspected of being terrorists (or terrorist sympathizers), thus justifying spying on and collecting private data on that many Americans. This was precisely the MO of the Nixon administration, which had a more or less formal "enemies list." But even Nixon, at the height of his schizoid paranoia, didn't have tens of millions of people on his list. It did, however, include two of the biggies on Bush's list: the New York Times and the Washington Post. Ah yes...the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Ask yourself, logically speaking, whether the government really needs to track the phone records of countless millions of people to find what is, at most, a few hundred "terrorists." Back in 2003, the FBI director told Congress that's how many al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists were in the U.S.  So even if, contrary to what our government would have you believe, the war in Iraq has increased, how many al Qaeda members could there possibly be in this country by now? 1,000? 1,500? In any event, a lot fewer than there are Quakers. And the government really expects to find these 1,500 by getting copies of yours and my phone records?

Finding "terrorists" is no different than finding any criminal who does't want to be found. When the police want to find a murderer, do they spread a dragnet over the whole city and go knocking on every citizen's door to see whether he might be hiding there? Let's not forget, this is the same NSA that intercepted the al Qaeda message on 9/10 saying "tomorrow is zero hour," but didn't translate the message until 9/12. Should anyone really want this gang that can't shoot straight rooting through their phone records to find a few dozen terrorists who, if they haven't stopped using telecommunications of any kind to talk to one another by now, are obviously too stupid to have pulled off 9/11.

So, are these snoopy techniques really part of the "global war on terror," or is the GWT a pretext for something else? Does anyone even still believe that the war in Iraq is part of a "global war on terror?" Even Bush stopped believing that when he tried to rename it (the global war, not Iraq) awhile back. Remember when he and his flacks started calling it the "global struggle" against, at first, the enemies of freedom, and then, violent extremism? And even though they (e.g., Rummy, Gen. Pace, etc.) couldn't carry off this revised marketing campaign with a straight face, as a result of which it died a natural death, at least it told us that what the war is really about is not about finding terrorists, it's about finding (with a tip of the hat to old Tricky Dick himself), enemies. And who could qualify more for that appellation than anyone who opposes George Bush?

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