Monday, May 12, 2008

More Spying, Fewer Results

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, spying is up in the United States. But what have we got to show for it? Not much.

The number of Americans being secretly wiretapped or having their financial and other records reviewed by the government has continued to increase as officials aggressively use powers approved after the Sept. 11 attacks. But the number of terrorism prosecutions ending up in court — one measure of the effectiveness of such sleuthing — has continued to decline, in some cases precipitously.

The trends, visible in new government data and a private analysis of Justice Department records, are worrisome to civil liberties groups and some legal scholars. They say it is further evidence that the government has compromised the privacy rights of ordinary citizens without much to show for it.

Not to worry, says the Bush administration. Just because we’ve got nothing to show for it doesn’t mean that spies — real or imagined — aren’t being caught and aren’t being dealt with.

Law enforcement officials say the additional surveillance powers have been critically important in ways the public does not always see. Threats can be mitigated, they say, by deporting suspicious people or letting them know that authorities are watching them.

“The fact that the prosecutions are down doesn’t mean that the utility of these investigations is down. It suggests that these investigations may be leading to other forms of prevention and protection,” said Thomas Newcomb, a former Bush White House national security aide. He said there were half a dozen actions outside of the criminal courts that the government could take to snuff out potential threats, including using diplomatic or military channels.

[…]

The emphasis on spy programs also is starting to give pause to some members of Congress who fear the government is investing too much in anti-terrorism programs at the expense of traditional crime-fighting. Other lawmakers are raising questions about how well the FBI is performing its counter-terrorism mission.

“Snuff out potential threats,” huh? That sounds like some Steven Segal-like macho movie antics where the rogue agent takes out the evil spy with, as they say, extreme prejudice, or they just … disappear.

Look, I want to catch the bad guys as much as anyone, but we have — or at least we used to have — something called the “rule of law” here. I know it’s “quaint” for some people to think that things like the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions might apply to people caught spying, and if they are caught, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But if they’re not catching them or not prosecuting them, what’s the point of all the spying in the first place except to reinforce a very healthy paranoia?

Oh, right…it’s an election year.