Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 12, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SURVEILLANCE STATE UPDATE....After 9/11, unsurprisingly, there was a spike in the number of warrants issued to spy on Americans. Also unsurprisingly, there was a spike in the number of terrorism prosecutions taken to court.

So what happened next? I don't know whether this is surprising or not, but Richard Schmitt of the LA Times reports today that after the spike in 2002, those two trends diverged. There have been more and more surveillance warrants issued, but they've produced fewer and fewer actual prosecutions:

The emphasis on spy programs [] 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.

....Even some former government officials concede many intelligence investigations fail to yield evidence of a serious threat to the U.S. "Most of these threats ultimately turn out to be wrong, or maybe just the investigating makes them go away," said Washington lawyer Michael Woods, former head of the FBI national security law unit. "A lot more information is going to pass through government hands, and most of that is going to be about people who turn out to be innocent or irrelevant."

If anything, the real situation is almost certainly even worse than this: "Warrants" understates the vast increase in surveillance, which also includes things like national security letters and the warrantless programs run by the NSA, while "prosecutions" overstates the number of genuine terrorists who have been taken to court. It would be nice if Congress actually took a serious look at this.

Kevin Drum 3:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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As long as they are spying on and infiltrating peace groups, I can sleep well at night. Oh -- and keeping nuns from voting. Whew!

Posted by: John McCain: More of the Same on May 12, 2008 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

"...or maybe just the investigating makes them go away."

Wait. Then that means the New York Times is making America safer by exposing all those investigations!!

These are tough times in which to be a wingnut.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on May 12, 2008 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

I personally hope they are surveilling my neighbor Jimmy Jim Jim. He smokes a little reefer every night and watches Adult Swim. He's endangering my family values!

Posted by: BombIranForChrist on May 12, 2008 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

Remember Parkinson's Law about work expanding to fill the time available? I wonder about the process we have in place to determine how many FBI special agents are devoted to counter-terrorism. It seems as if it would be difficult to do, so probably the current administration isn't doing it well at all, hence the divergence.

Posted by: Bill Harshaw on May 12, 2008 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

Gotta control the people as well as foreign critics.

Posted by: luther on May 12, 2008 at 4:06 PM | PERMALINK

Either the feds are looking in all the wrong places or there's nothing to find.

Posted by: DNS on May 12, 2008 at 4:12 PM | PERMALINK

Well, fortunately the Supreme Court has given its ok to re-instituting a Poll Tax so it all balances out. Less to find AND less democracy.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on May 12, 2008 at 4:29 PM | PERMALINK

The president prefers to skip prosecutions and go straight to imprisoning suspects.

Posted by: Brojo on May 12, 2008 at 4:34 PM | PERMALINK

It would be nice if Congress actually took a serious look at this.


The administration is in open violation of the Presidential Records Act. The administration is in open violation of FISA. The administration is in open violation of the Fourth Geneva convention. And the administration is is open violation of multiple Congressional subpeonas already issued.

What possible reason would the Congress have to open up another line of non-inquiry?

Posted by: Paul Dirks on May 12, 2008 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK

There is something very wrong with this graph. How do you have an increase in warrants but less prosecutions?
So the bottom line would be, shrubie took away our rights for nothing. Gee imagine that!!

Posted by: jc on May 12, 2008 at 5:15 PM | PERMALINK

Hooray! Increasing surveillance is reducing the problem, just like "they" said it would! Post 9/11 coolly and rationally arrived at updates of our security laws are validated! I feel oodles safer, but I'm a little likely to indulge my curiosity by googling 'Adult Swim' anytime soon! ;(

Posted by: MaryCh on May 12, 2008 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK
Only US liberals still have a laissez-faire attitude toward terrorists.

Only the pants pissing cowards like those in the American right wing think that we can and should try to buy ourselves comfort and security at the expense of personal liberty. They spit on the graves of every person that died to win this nation's independence, and all those that have since fought to maintain it. They live in a puddle of their own urine.

Posted by: phleabo on May 12, 2008 at 5:43 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter mhr: Only liberals are standing in the way of this admin further eroding my civil liberties.

Preferred mhr: *

Posted by: ckelly on May 12, 2008 at 5:55 PM | PERMALINK

It's simple enough, folks. They hate us for our freedom. Therefore, if we give up our freedom they won't hate us.

Is there a problem here?

Posted by: thersites on May 12, 2008 at 5:59 PM | PERMALINK

So either spying isn't yielding prosecution, posting about which gives aid and comfort to The Enemy, or we're actually secretly stockpiling information in a cunning ploy to boldly spring a sudden attack and sweep all terrorists away forever, posting about which is revealing secret plans and assists the Enemy.

Either way, this post is blatant treason. To Gitmo with him!

Posted by: bleh on May 12, 2008 at 6:25 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, and thers, isn't that letting the terrists dictate our agenda? Doesn't that mean they've already won? And isn't that giving aid and comfort to the Enemy?

Better reserve two seats on the next Rendition Express.

Posted by: bleh on May 12, 2008 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

bleh --
Better make that three seats. The existence of the Rendition Express was a state secret, y'know.

You can have my bag of peanuts.

Posted by: thersites on May 12, 2008 at 6:41 PM | PERMALINK

How do you have an increase in warrants but less prosecutions?

Yes, if you need probable cause to issue a warrant, I'd expect some increase in prosecutions.

Unless all they are discovering is that most American terrorists are either in right-wing militias or are the type of person that would bomb an abortion clinic or shoot a doctor... And we certainly can't have those kinds of activity labeled as terrorism.

Posted by: Wapiti on May 12, 2008 at 6:55 PM | PERMALINK

firstly, other than the usg,there were never any terrorists operating within conus.

the events of 11/09/01 were as orchestrated as any of the gladio ops in europe.

the last 6-7 years have been a very nasty bit of theater. the nastiest bit of this bit of theater is that the audience has refrained from taking the "hook" to the fascist bastids[and that is a bipartisan cast].

of course, as brad friedman and bev harris and mark miller have discovered, reported, the "hook" has been rendered useless as there is no "fair and honest" voting since 2000.

the only terrorists that i can discern carry "party" credentials. and those are not baath party credentials.

you know their names: democratic, republican, likud.

Posted by: albertchampion on May 12, 2008 at 7:32 PM | PERMALINK

A less conspiracy-ish (but no less depressing) interpretation might be that previously prosecutions were being used as a sort of investigative tool to find out the sorts of things they can now use surveillance for.

Posted by: Andre Alessi on May 12, 2008 at 9:02 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin-- why so amazed? I can offer a simple theory that easily explains both those curves.

As the number of ex-high school football players surveilling people increases, and generally more surveillance targets stay under surveillance than drop off the list, it becomes more and more likely that the individuals conducting the surveillance realize that it can be used to check out women's boobies. They therefore become more and more likely to request that new targets be added to existing investigations, not necessariy correlated to how the woman rates as a terrorist threat, but how she rates on a scale of 1 to 10.

Posted by: Swan on May 12, 2008 at 10:41 PM | PERMALINK

Just ask Bernie Kerik for his honest opinion, and if you're the right kind of person, I'm sure he'll tel you: They've got to keep those boobies, er, terrorists under surveillance!!

Posted by: Swan on May 12, 2008 at 10:45 PM | PERMALINK

There are variations on the theory, of course. For example: "The longer right-wing anti-abortion individuals / Neo-Nazis spend watching people on surveillance, the more likely they are to realize it can be used to watch anyone they consider unorthodox or feel jealous of or threatened by."

Posted by: Swan on May 12, 2008 at 10:50 PM | PERMALINK

The Bushies have done nothing for 7+ years but put fundamentalist idealogues throughout every government agency that has any kind of invasive authority. We have seen however, that the only thing these people excel in is some form of corruption or acting as a gatekeeper against public discovery of corruption. It is no wonder that nothing lawful, nor any constructive case building has come of the domestic spying. It is in the hands of those who know only how to deliberately abuse positions of advantage. Why give that up as a result of repeated judicial failures? After all, this administration has not once put together a team that could succeed on their own merits -- not even in a case against small-fish terrorists. The gem of being able to spy on one's domestic enemies, real or imagined, is too valuable to risk on a level playing field.

Posted by: jcricket on May 12, 2008 at 11:24 PM | PERMALINK

Wait til food riots start happening here. Then you'll see your police state.

Posted by: Speed on May 13, 2008 at 10:13 AM | PERMALINK



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