News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
SUNDAY, MAY 14, 2006


Administration whittling away at Fourth Amendment

Reasonable people have no qualms with President Bush's attempt to keep Americans safe from terrorist attacks.

Many, however, have serious concerns about his methods.

The federal government has become overzealous in its attempt to keep Americans safe, to the point that is runs roughshod over Fourth Amendment rights in the name of national security.

First, President Bush assured the American people that the National Security Agency did not monitor any Americans' telephone calls without the express approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court established for that purpose.

Months later, after The New York Times disclosed the NSA's classified warrantless eavesdropping program, Mr. Bush acknowledged that the NSA did not consult the FISA Court on specific wiretaps of international calls between Americans and terror suspects.

"If you're talking to al-Qaida, we want to know it," Mr. Bush famously said in justifying the controversial program.

We said at the time that the specific program is not a threat to law-abiding Americans, but could be expanded to include actions that invade privacy rights. When, for example, would the eavesdropping expand to include those who talk to others who have contacted al-Qaida suspects?

Supporters of the program said that would never happen.

Last week we learned that the NSA has been obtaining, with the cooperation of telephone companies, records of all phone calls of any kind, wireless or landline, international or domestic. The program keeps track of telephone numbers at both ends of all calls and the duration of conversations.

The NSA uses the immense quantity of data to perform "social network analysis" — a study of the connections among people. Depicted graphically, the relationships are like a spider web that gets ever wider as more people are included in the study.

In other words, to paraphrase Mr. Bush, "If you're talking to anyone, we want to know it."

The theory of "Six Degrees of Separation" holds that any one person can be connected to any other person on the planet by a chain of acquaintances that has no more than four intermediaries. In other words: Somebody you know is familiar with someone else who knows another person who is acquainted with a fifth person who knows an al-Qaida operative.

The goal of the government program is to "connect the dots."

But don't worry about that when you call Mom today to wish her a happy Mother's Day.

Big Brother is not listening ... yet ... as far as we know.

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