Monday, May 15, 2006

Spying On ABC News

ABC News' blog has a report by Brian Ross which is, frankly, scary sh*t.
A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we call in an effort to root out confidential sources.

"It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick," the source told us in an in-person conversation.

ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls.

Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation.

Now the report itself is short on the details, other than that ABC News is under surveillance, but if this part of the fallout from the NSA collecting a massive database of phone records, then that would be "scary indeed" as James Joyner puts it. Josh Marshall writes that it would mean:
we can set aside any pretense that administration policy on all manner of electronic surveillance isn't being brought to bear on political opponents, media critics, the press, everybody...given the people in charge of the executive branch today, you just can't have any confidence that these tools will be restricted to targeting terrorists. Start grabbing up phone records to data-mine for terrorists and then the tools are just too tempting for your leak investigations. Once you do that, why not just keep an eye on your critics too? After all, they're the ones most likely to get the leaks, right? So, same difference.
Which is exactly the kind of mission creep I warned about.

The other possibility is that the NSA, CIA or other agency is directly tapping ABC's phone calls - actually listening in. If so, they better have a FISA warrant. It's definitely not foreign based. Joyner says such an action would be "reasonable, if problematic". Personally I dont think it is reasonable at all to attack the free press in such a way simply for printing leaked tales of government ineptitude and law-breaking - it smacks of yet more mission creep towards totalitarianism by the Bush administration. So yes, I would say it was problematic.

However, even if you don't agree with that, then you have to realise that this means one of the "problems" is that identifying the leakers at their places of work, the supposedly most secure agencies in the country, has been found to be too much like hard work. So the investigators have gone for the easy option and hang any conflicts with the First Amendment. Spying on ABC News is, therefore, a symptom of incompetence or a symptom of creeping dictatorship - maybe even both.

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