To my mind there is one important lesson to be learned from the recent (and not so recent) revelations stemming from Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden’s (Epic surname btw) willingness to share classified government communiques, videos, and whatever other information they could get their dirty little digital hands on. No, it’s not that our government commits acts of violence and acts with subterfuge in stark contrast with what the White House press corps reports to us; anyone with an IQ above 75 ought to be able to realize that all governments do this, and have always done this. And no, it’s not that there will always be some courageous soul who will risk everything to come forward and let the people know what stinking pile of corruption lies underneath their big shiny American Shield; a casual stroll through history will surely acquaint a person with the likes of Mark Felt, Colonel Ryszard Kukliński, and other whistle-blowers who were fed up with the corruption around them and decided to do something about it. No, if there is one crystal-clear point that can be made from all this current leakage it is this: The United States government is absolutely inept at detective work. Allow me to expand a bit on what I mean.
In a recent press conference President Obama told reporters that the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs is a “modest encroachment” on privacy, and that “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. There are trade-offs involved.” Taken by themselves these sorts of statements seem completely reasonable; after all finding terrorists embedded in the U.S. (especially if they are native born or citizens otherwise) could prove impossible without some means of examining people’s lives. Police use wiretaps and search warrants to gather evidence all the time and we as a people seem to concur with that. However there is a grave difference between how local authorities go about conducting these intrusions of privacy and how the government does.
This is an overview of the Federal statutes governing wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping (current as of 10/9/2012). It is 162 pages of joy to run through, but there is one piece worth quoting for this post:
Title III exempts federal and state law enforcement officials from its prohibitions on the interception of wire, oral, and electronic communications under three circumstances: (1) pursuant to or in anticipation of a court order, (2) with the consent of one of the parties to the communication; and (3) with respect to the communications of an intruder within an electronic communications system.
According to the first provision (and all the legal framework located in the actual Bill) federal agencies can only legally wiretap “pursuant to or in anticipation of a court order.” In other words, a search warrant. In other words, just as local and state authorities have to get a search warrant to conduct surveillance on suspected criminals, so do federal agents.
Now check out the Guardian article where Snowden unveiled what he knows about the “Boundless Informant” program. According to the article, “The Boundless Informant documents show the agency collecting almost 3 billion pieces of intelligence from US computer networks over a 30-day period ending in March 2013.” That’s 3 billion instances where no court order was granted or anticipated, or where there was consent. And now we start to see why our government is so terrible at detective work; they have to break their own rules and observe everybody in order to catch possible criminals. Imagine if local police were investigating a robbery that occurred last Saturday night and in order to solve the crime they went through the banking, cellular phone, and all other records of every citizen in the community in order to catch the criminal. Not only is that a huge slight against the spirit of the 4th amendment, but it would be incredibly inefficient and expensive to do. The Federal government, in doing these sorts of things, is putting the cart before the horse so to speak; they are using the information that should be obtained by search warrant to get a search warrant, and they can get away with it due to the Bills that quietly pass through Congress while the majority of America worries about pregnant television skanks and who wants to marry who. So instead of concerning yourself with all the moral conundrums of our own government spying on us in the name of safety, focus on the fact that the government is grossly inept at what they do and how most of your fellow citizens couldn’t care less about letting them continue doing it.