Intelligence Squared Debate: Oct. 7, 2014

Mass Collection of U.S. Phone Records Violates the Fourth Amendment

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6 comments to Intelligence Squared Debate: Oct. 7, 2014

  • Bob Connery

    What I have come to appreciate in the course of watching the last three of debates on Bob Rosenkranz’s Intelligence Squared project is how unique, public-spirited and valuable that those debates are. IQ2 screens, prepares, presents and illuminates each of the its topics better than any other media, op-ed, or published coverage I have encountered. It is a magnificent, vital contribution to the full and fair discussion of public issues in this democracy. And personally, I think it’s simply the best “stuff” I see, hear, or read on the issues that divide us as a nation.
    For what it’s worth, I hope my classmates who have not watched the IQ2 debates on our website will give it a whirl. Somehow IQ2 gets terrific people on both sides who are intelligent, knowledgeable, experienced, and usually immersed and involved. There is a fine referee, John Donovan, who guarantees civility and keeps the debate on track. And the debate format itself offers a certain objectivity, as well as an informed basis for judgment. IQ2 also turns interested, active live audiences who participate and evaluate. And I think the “metric” IQ2 uses to evaluate the impact of the debates, namely changed minds, is a very good one. For example, in the last debate I would have put myself in the 37% of the live audience that said they were Undecided before listening to the debate. At the end of the debate only 7% were Undecided. 30 percent of IQ2’s audience had changed their minds from Undecided to For or Against by the end of the debate. That is huge change based on a debate presented in one hour. In terms of what I understand is a radio, television and internet audience that averages 11 million, that 30% would translate to over 3.5 million changed minds. As Maynard Keynes once allowed, there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. I would hope that Bob Rosencranz is encouraged by that kind of impact, and similarly hope that our class is sufficiently interested by not only what Bob Rosenkranz is doing, but by the huge effort that Chris Cory, Al Chambers, and several other Classmates are making to put it on our website, and to make it part of our class’s lives and discussion. Each of us can make an impact as well.

  • I never knew the PO digitally photographs every letter. Does the NSA have access to their files, too? I’m just starting a creepy new dystopian novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, in which every citizen wears a helmet of wires that responds to his or her thoughts with related information and ads– and permits surveillance. (In the novel, Pittsburgh has been atomic-bombed into dust, though I’m not yet sure by whom.)

    • Chip Neville

      Chris, I honestly don’t know, but my guess is that the NSA can get any information it wants, as could the FBI. In the past (the ’40s, ’50’s and 60’s), the FBI went around court orders, but I don’t know whether they still do. They now have the reputation for being the cleanest and most law abiding of our intelligence agencies, but they have been accused of accepting help from other agencies operating abroad who steered them to evidence initially obtained by illegal means.

  • Chip Neville

    The debate reminded me of Hillel’s famous statement about the Torah, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” It the case of the debate, the two crucial points were,

    1. For the Affirmative: The falling cost of data storage (less than 10 cents per gigabyte now) makes it possible to record and store virtually everything about all of us, ALL our phone calls, All our text and video messages, All our emails, and even Where we are minute by minute (from GPS on our phones). What sort of society would this be, would we want to live in such a science fiction dystopia? Before, the high cost of doing this was prohibitive. Now, our ONLY protection is the Fourth Amendment. (Alex Abdo in his closing statement)

    Sadly, THE ONLY WOMAN called was shut down by John Donovan, the moderator, when she asked about this same issue during the question period. (Otherwise, Donovan did an exemplary job.)

    2. For the Negative: Cicero’s famous dictum, “Silent enim leges inter arma.” (“In war, the law falls silent”). Although no one actually quoted this, the Negative made extensive use of its import: protection from terrorism in this time of war requires that we waive our right to the privacy of our phone records. (John Yoo in his closing statement.)

    To quote Hillel again, “All else is commentary. Go and study it.”

    But of course, there was much more, most of it deftly presented and of great interest. Since this was supposed to be a Constitutional debate, the second Affirmative, Elizabeth Wydra, made a telling point in response to the argument that collection of phone metadata (essentially a pen register) and email metadata (essentially a mail cover) has long been judged constitutional. She raised the issue of the QUANTITY of data that can be collected, and pointed out that the Supreme Court recently ruled 9 – 0 that the Quantity did indeed make a difference.

    John Yoo ably presented the National Security argument for the Negative, when he appealed to the history of 9/11 and his personal experience in Government then, when we knew terrorists were in the country but did not collect the information we needed to apprehend them. And Stewart Baker ably illustrated for the Negative the bad effects of excessive protection of Civil Liberties in the run-up to 9/11, when the very policy he had helped implement in the ’90s led to the complete separation of intelligence gathering and criminal investigations, with the result that the FBI, which had the resources to locate the 9/11 terrorists, was told to bug out because it was an intelligence matter.

    What made me personally uneasy was that John (Torture) Yoo himself was presenting these arguments for the Negative. Surely our country’s sad experience with torture — it was the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib that doomed our Iraqi adventure — is strong evidence that we should depart from the law and universally accepted conventions of decency only with great trepidation in the most extreme circumstances. The Affirmative started to make this case by bringing up Yoo’s record, but they were (justifiably) shut down by the moderator.

    Curiously, neither side mentioned that the U.S. Postal Service digitally photographs the front of every envelope mailed. Of course, they have a legitimate government purpose for doing this; they need to track mail to trace lost letters. But this perfectly legal mail cover certainly could be used, and perhaps is being used, by the NSA to gain even more information about each of us.

    If I might close by commenting on Bob Connery’s excellent piece framing the debate, I would like to say that we are both veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, though in different ways at different times. Bob ran greater risks than I because the Klan look-alikes threatened his family — though I ran plenty of risks as an organizer in Mississippi, thank you very much — but my perspective is somewhat different from his. The FBI certainly spied on all of us in the South, and I came to believe that if the government hasn’t spied on you today, you haven’t done your duty as a citizen. Personally, I think this is still true today. As the USPS policy illustrates, even being a technological Luddite does not make you safe. There is no place to hide. We might call this “an inconvenient truth.”

  • Now that I have heard much of the debate, I am extremely grateful for the preview, that increased my interest and flagged things to look for. Now, Bob Connery, I am curious, and I bet others are too, to know what YOU thought of it

  • Charles Merlis

    Until I hear something persuasive to the contrary, I cannot argue with Bob Connery, but agree with him that the U. S. government is outrageously violating our constitutional rights

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