Pay-as-you-spy phone tap follies

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Now and then, there is a news story so revealing that it should be shouted for days from every yammering television station and printed and prominently analyzed by every newspaper.

Why, there’s one now that may be more important than a hot yarn about a pathetic 23-year-old no-talent pop singer getting drunk and vomiting on Greta Garbo’s star on Hollywood Boulevard.

Generally speaking, however, most of the people who pass themselves off as news reporters and analysts these days miss the significance of such stories entirely.

So it was with the story of the telephone companies, the FBI and wiretaps against United States citizens that broke on Thursday, Jan. 10.

Well, sort of broke. I saw it only in the New York Times, on a couple of liberal-leaning Internet news reports and, in brief telling, on CNN.

As far as I can ascertain, most newspapers skipped it. Probably judged it to be another of those stories they feel we don’t need to see because they might just upset us.

(I’m working very hard here, folks, to restrain the sarcasm and sharp comment that is pushing to be let loose. Breathe deeply. Tell it straight. I don’t promise to succeed entirely.)

The story is this: Some unspecified number of telephone companies cut off FBI wiretaps on the phones of American citizens because the FBI didn’t pay its bills on time.

A Justice Department audit released Thursday said the taps were shut down because the FBI was lax in its oversight of money used in undercover investigations and, thus, failed to pay bills. In one telephone office, not named, unpaid costs for wiretaps totaled $66,000, the Justice Department report said.

Those are the same wiretaps that were illegal until our jellyfish Congress voted almost unanimously to make them retroactively legal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), so that the Bush government could go on doing what it was doing anyway — tapping the phones of American citizens “suspected” of being terrorists and spies. Who suspects them of what is never told, of course; classified info, doncha know. No cases have been brought as a result of the purported investigations.

Many experts and constitutional lawyers believe that, FISA or no, such wiretaps are unconstitutional. That’s a minor point these days, of course. It has been years since we actually applied the U.S. Constitution to government actions.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said that late payments to phone companies “have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence.”

The audit shows that more than half of 900 bills for wiretapping went unpaid.

However, John Miller, assistant FBI director, told the few news outfits that bothered to ask that wiretapping was interrupted in only “a few instances,” and that none of its cases “was significantly affected.” (Cases? What cases?)

There is a bit more on who may be responsible for the sloppy, or nonexistent, bookkeeping and failure to pay the bills, but that is by far the least important aspect of the story.

A bit of thought leads inevitably to these conclusions:

1. If the shutting down of the wiretaps did not affect any criminal cases, although hundreds of wiretaps are involved, then the taps are unnecessary for purposes of criminal investigation.

2.The first conclusion leads to a second: That the wiretaps, or at least many of them, probably are not for the purpose of establishing criminal cases or preventing spying or terrorism.

3.If the wiretaps are not for the purpose of uncovering criminal activity, it is reasonable to think that they may be fishing expeditions, a method of seeking information that might be used against the Bush White House’s political opponents. That’s only speculation, of course.

4.The telephone companies were perfectly willing to behave in a criminal manner -– remember many of the wiretaps initially were illegal –- for the sake of profit. Or perhaps, as phone company executives have mumbled on occasion, because it was their “duty” to comply with FBI desires for “patriotic” reasons.

5.However, if we are to believe that the phone companies engaged in illegal activity out of patriotism, then by cutting off the taps they clearly have put a very low price on their patriotism.

In the world of telephone companies, $66,000 –- which apparently is the biggest or one of the biggest unpaid bills –- is chump change. That’s two or three days’ pay for most upper tier telephone company executives.

6.For that money, phone company executives are being exceptionally foolish in dealing with a big-buck, politically powerful customer. Hell, even your local natural gas company generally won’t cut off someone’s heat for $5 in unpaid bills.

Oops. Wait. I take that back. This year, the gas companies are doing just that. We have new, zero-tolerance standards.

7.There has been no complaint about the phone companies act of shutting down wire taps from any member of Congress, nor from the Bush camp, nor from right wing stink tanks, which leads to the unavoidable conclusion that they all fully accept the values — our leaders love to talk about “values” — of the telephone companies: Profit comes before vague concepts such as “patriotism” and hunting down enemies of the people (which is the claimed purpose of the wiretaps). There is no god but profit.

8.The Bush crowd and its slavish supporters in Congress remain willing to use whatever means they can identify to go after their enemies, regardless of legality or the U.S. Constitution. Short of messing with any large corporation’s profits, of course. However, I concede that this is hardly news.

9.Democrats, notably those in Congress, in failing to jump on this issue and point out the facts listed here, continue to behave as pants-wetting cowards, so afraid that some other member of Congress or opposition candidate will call them “soft on terrorism” that they will willingly wipe their feet on the U.S. Constitution.

10. All but about a half dozen members of Congress are so stupid, ignorant and timorous that they still have not grasped the fact that a majority of American citizens are utterly fed up with such crap.

Alice, old girl, in comparison with the bizarre world of Bush, the land beyond the looking glass was a simple place.

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