The extraordinary secrecy surrounding the spying operations revealed in Alberto Gonzales’ Senate testimony is not aimed at al-Qaeda, but at the American people.
By Robert Parry
The dispute over whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales committed perjury when he parsed words about George W. Bush’s warrantless surveillance program misses a larger point: the extraordinary secrecy surrounding these spying operations is not aimed at al-Qaeda, but at the American people.
There has never been a reasonable explanation for why a fuller discussion of these operations would help al-Qaeda, although that claim often is used by the Bush administration to challenge the patriotism of its critics or to avoid tough questions.
On July 27, for instance, White House press secretary Tony Snow fended off reporters who asked about apparent contradictions in Gonzales’s testimony by saying:
“This gets us back into the situation that I understand is unsatisfactory because there are lots of questions raised and the vast majority of those we’re not going to be in a position to answer, simply because they do involve matters of classification that we cannot and will not discuss publicly.”
But al-Qaeda terrorists always have assumed that their electronic communications were vulnerable to interception, which is why 9/11 attackers like Mohamed Atta traveled overseas for face-to-face meetings with their handlers. They limited their phone calls to mostly routine conversations.
The terrorists also had no reason to know or to care that the U.S. government was or wasn’t getting wiretap approval from the secret court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. They simply took for granted that their communications could be intercepted and acted accordingly.
It never made sense to think that al-Qaeda terrorists suddenly would get loose-lipped just because the FISA court was or wasn’t in the mix. The FISA court rubber-stamps almost all wiretap requests from the Executive Branch for domestic spying, and overseas calls don’t require a warrant.
Can anyone really imagine a conversation like “Gee, Osama, since Bush has to get FISA approval, we can now call our sleeper agents and plan the next attack.”
Similarly, there’s no reason to think terrorists would change their behavior significantly if they knew that the U.S. government was engaged in massive data-mining operations, poring through electronic records of citizens and non-citizens alike.
The 9/11 attackers mostly stayed off the grid and many of their transactions, such as renting housing, would not alone have raised suspicions. Indeed, the patterns that deserved more attention, such as enrollment in flight-training classes and the arrival of known al-Qaeda operatives, were detected by alert FBI agents in the field but ignored by FBI officials in Washington — and by Bush while on a month-long vacation in Texas.
The 9/11 attacks were less a failure of intelligence than a failure of political attention by Bush’s national security team.
Americans in the Dark
So what’s the real explanation for all the secrecy about the overall structure of the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program?
The chief reason, especially for the excessive secrecy around the data-mining operations, appears to be Bush’s political need to prevent a full debate inside the United States about the security value of these Big Brother-type procedures when weighed against invasions of Americans’ privacy.
Bush knows he could run into trouble if he doesn’t keep the American people in the dark. In 2002, for instance, when the Bush administration launched a project seeking “total information awareness” on virtually everyone on earth involved in the modern economy, the disclosure was met with public alarm.
The administration cited the terrorist threat to justify the program which involved applying advanced computer technology to analyze trillions of bytes of data on electronic transactions and communications. The goal was to study the electronic footprints left by every person in the developed world during the course of their everyday lives — from the innocuous to the embarrassing to the potentially significant.
The government could cross-check books borrowed from a library, fertilizer bought at a farm-supply outlet, X-rated movies rented at a video store, prescriptions filled at a pharmacy, sites visited on the Internet, tickets reserved for a plane, borders crossed while traveling, rooms rented at a motel, and countless other examples.