Sunday, February 05, 2006

Six degrees of freedom

The president claims that the program of spying on Americans living in America and placing or receiving calls from abroad is a “terrorist surveillance program.” The justification offered is “if you're talking to a member of al Qaeda, we want to know why.”

Sounds reasonable to me.

Of course, I would have thunk that if we had the phone number of a known al Qaeda member, we would just drop in and shoot the son of a bitch through the head. I’m okay with that, too.

The problem is that the wiretapping didn’t just involve people talking to al Qaeda. The President said in his State of the Union Address,
“I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al-Qaida operatives and affiliates to and from America.”
Hey, wait just a doggone minute! Who are these affiliates?

See, when we talk about al Qaeda, it is difficult to know who or what we are talking about. On the one hand, it has been argued that al Qaeda does not exist apart from Osama Bin Laden and a small circle of close associates. On the other hand, the worldwide Islamist movement numbers in the millions. So, I guess it depends on how you define “affiliates.”

Now King George W is not a guy to error on the side of caution, so I am figuring that he is going deep on the affiliates. Let’s just call it a million.

Enter Stanley Milgram. Students of psychology will most readily associate his name with the Milgram Studies, which demonstrated that people are capable of incredible cruelty when instructed to do so by someone in a position of authority. The experiments were conducted the year after the Adolf Eichman trial, and the lesson that one should take from these notorious experiments is, “Question authority.”

Less well known is his work documenting the “small world effect.” In a nutshell, the premise is that on average any person in the U.S. can be linked to any other by six degrees of separation. He demonstrated this by giving a package to people in Kansas, with instructions to pass it hand to hand to someone who would do the same until it got to the wife of a divinity student in Cambridge, Mass. It has been demonstrated ad nauseam that any actor or actress can be linked to Kevin Bacon in six steps.

Okay, let’s do the math. Do you know someone who in the last 5 years has been in Europe or the Mid-east? That’s one degree. Three or four more will probably get you to one of the million Islamist radicals. That leaves you two more degrees to get you to the hard core of al Qaeda.

Congratulations: you, too, can be the subject of NSA eavesdropping.

Of course, all of this may seem far-fetched to you. That’s because you trust our leaders, in which case, you have failed to take to heart the lessons of the Milgram studies of authority, not to mention the sixties. But consider this: the NSA was turning over so many recordings to the FBI that it completely overwhelmed the Bureau’s capacity.

The Washington Post recently that it has been reported that the number of American’s spied on is in the thousands, and one source put the number at 5,000.

As the article documents, many more people are touched by the surveillance program. “Surveillance takes place in several stages, officials said, the earliest by machine. Computer-controlled systems collect and sift basic information about hundreds of thousands of faxes, e-mails and telephone calls into and out of the United States before selecting the ones for scrutiny by human eyes and ears.” Of the thousands selected for this level of scrutiny, fewer than 10 a year raise enough suspicion to justify the next level – an application for a warrant to monitor domestic calls.

How many of those result in arrests? I don’t know: do you remember any? If you do, could you please tell me about the outcome of the trial?

The President wants to make this an issue of who is tough on terrorists. He wants you to believe that he had to break the law to keep you safe. What it is really about is the rule of law, and W's invasion of privacy for no apparent benefit.

Question authority!

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

1 comment:

BigMitch said...

Did Chris Matthews read this? He also invoked the Kevin Bacon analogy. But now, AG Gonzales has backed off from the President's assertion. See, The Genesis of a Controvsy.