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FBI asks Congress for phone record slush fund

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National Public Radio reported this week that the FBI has requested $5.3m from Congress to pay telecommunications companies for customer data, funding a massive database that would provide agents with convenient access to customer phone and email records. Just in case.

The request provides the legal coda to the controversial domestic spying program unveiled by the New York Times over a year and a half ago, and serves to raise again questions that were never fully addressed in the interim. At the time, many believed rumors that the telecommunications industry profited by selling personal data to the feds - after all, the American telecommunications industry has a long history of selling personal data to the highest-bidding telemarketer, so why wouldn't they hustle it to the government? That twist on the surveillance saga had pretty much faded from view until now, when the FBI decided to bring the database program out of the proverbial closet.

The obsessive secrecy that has characterized the withering of the American Constitution under the Bush administration just might be running its course, if this latest government attempt at data mining is any indication. Rather than just starting the program on the sly on some dubious constitutional argument spawned in the Vice President's office and then denying everything, the DOJ appears finally to have realized that the American populace has been pummeled into docility by years of fearmongering. Just throw the request out there and get on with it.

And it's cheap. The amount reported is a drop in the bucket for either the government or industry - assuming $5.3m is not just a down payment on future ogling. Your average American is about to get sold down the river for roughly $.018 per citizen.

The FBI would at least need to write what's called a "National Security Letter" to get at the information, though it isn't clear how rapid access to information such as this would have done anything to eliminate the internal stonewalling that was the FBI's real weakness in the months leading up to the 9/11 attacks. FBI spokesman John Miller made the tired claim to NPR that this kind of database could have helped prevent the 9/11 attacks, although, as everyone knows now, at least two FBI field agents were stymied by FBI higher ups in their attempts to investigate critical al Qaeda operatives in the year leading up to that fateful day.

"All you have to do is look back in the 9/11 case where the hijackers were on the ground, in some cases up to two years, before the plot was launched and say, 'Wouldn't it have been valuable had that plot been uncovered to identify the other hijackers by figuring out who had been in touch with whom,'" Miller said.

Of course, it's also entirely possible that this new database, the Telecommunications Data Collections Center, is nothing more than a feint designed to distract the American public from other still secret spying programs. Alberto Gonzalez, the bumbling attorney general, opened the door for such speculation with his grudging testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when, dangling like a fish on a line, he raised just such a possibility. The full transcript of his testimony may be found here.

Obfuscation and incompetence - now that's more like it. ®

Burke Hansen, attorney at large, heads a San Francisco law office

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