The NSA’s political fiction

Pub date May 23, 2006


TECHSPLOITATION Here’s what disturbs me: In light of recent revelations that the National Security Agency has been illegally collecting vast databases of information about every single phone call made in the United States since late 2001, only 53 percent of US citizens polled by Newsweek think the government has gone too far in its efforts to stop terrorism. That’s a majority, but not a very large one. And in the same poll, 41 percent said they thought spying on phone calls made to and from everyone in the country was necessary.

This arouses the same sinking feeling I got many years ago when I was a young graduate student at UC Berkeley, grading my very first set of papers. From that sample, and many others in subsequent courses, I learned that 70 percent of college students in an upper-division English course at a top university cannot construct a coherent argument using evidence taken from books they’ve read. That’s what convinced me that most people, even highly educated ones, go through their lives without ever examining the way rhetoric works, and the way evidence is used (or abused) in its service. These people weren’t stupid by any stretch of the imagination. They simply didn’t understand how narrative persuasion works, in the same way that many people who are smart nevertheless don’t understand how their car works.

And just as technical naïveté makes you vulnerable when your car breaks down on a deserted road, so too does narrative ignorance when your nation is breaking down right before your eyes. That such a paltry majority is convinced the government has gone too far with surveillance is a perfect example of this. The Bush administration has cited no evidence to justify snooping on innocent people’s telephone calls. In fact, government analysts have admitted that the reason they didn’t know about the impending Sept. 11 attacks had to do with poor foreign intelligence. You can’t remedy poor foreign intel with domestic spying on the telephone network. Nor do you strengthen your nation’s cohesiveness by allowing the government to break the law, gathering private information from corporations like AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth without any court oversight, without any warrants.

Certainly the government can and will argue that certain interpretations of the USA-PATRIOT Act allow the NSA to snoop on my telephone calls in the name of national security. But where is the proof that it’s necessary to log my telephone calls? When my fundamental right to speak privately is violated in such an extreme manner, along with the rights of all my fellow US citizens, we deserve some hard facts to back up the claim that this unambiguously totalitarian strategy is for our own good.

Instead of evidence, however, we’re given incoherent emotional appeals. We’re told that the danger from terrorism is so great that the government should be allowed to do anything it likes including emuutf8g the blanket surveillance strategies of the now-defunct USSR. We’re told that civil liberties groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation can’t sue AT&T for handing over personal information to the government without a warrant because examining the evidence in a court of law would violate national security and endanger us all. But appeals to fear are not counterevidence. They do not bolster a logical argument. They simply add punch to what is nothing more than a fictional narrative about how monitoring electronic communications will somehow magically stop terrorism.

Cyberpunk author William Gibson has said that this disastrous episode in our nation’s history is about our struggle to deal with the scope of new technologies. Our vast telecommunications network, including cable, phones, and the Internet, has made it easier than ever for telecom companies to expose our private lives to authority figures with the power to punish us severely even kill us. What the NSA has done, Gibson argues, is the result of evolved but unregulated computer storage and search capacities that make it possible to record, search, and maintain archives of the whole nation’s telephone calls.

Certainly technical evolution has made it easier for the government to place us under surveillance without revealing it and without any oversight by the judicial system. But it’s not technology that’s stoppering the country’s outrage. That’s a problem as old as recorded communication itself. Most people cannot take apart a piece of rhetoric and tell you whether its component parts are facts and evidence or merely seductive fiction. SFBG

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who can take apart and reassemble an argument in one minute flat.