The NSA, Terrorist Chatter and American Humor

Humorist Brian Unger responds to last week's news that the National Security Agency (NSA), under the direction of President Bush, has been electronically eavesdropping on Americans within U.S. borders. Unger worries that NSA computers can't distinguish between terrorist chatter and harmless American humor.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In today's Unger Report, the acknowledgment by President Bush that he ordered the National Security Agency to conduct electronic spying on Americans without first obtaining warrants. With more on how electronic eavesdropping works, here is Brian Unger.

BRIAN UNGER reporting:

I have no idea how electronic eavesdropping works, Madeleine, but it just sounds like something my mother told me I should never do. And if you're like most Americans, this news has you wondering if you said something inappropriate on the phone that might have gotten you eavesdropped on. Maybe for a moment, a minute or entire conversation over the past few years, thousands of Americans tripped the NSA computers with a lame joke about Osama bin Laden, a snide remark about Dick Cheney or a fantastic recipe for falafel. Did you speak the word `bomb' in a context that a computer chip would deem suspicious? When you e-mailed someone a photo of Saddam in his undies, were you mocking or supporting the tighty-whitied most wanted? Can the NSA tell the difference between a Hollywood producer discussing a terrorist plot to destroy the globe and a global terrorist discussing a plot to destroy Hollywood? And do NSA computers laugh? Can they differentiate between a guy in Minneapolis telling a stupid joke loaded with war-on-terror set-ups and punch lines and a sleeper cell in Buffalo detailing a sinister terror plot in an e-mail?

Until we know the criteria of the NSA employees, what separates the terrorist plotter from Jay Leno could all be in the delivery. Can we trust our nation's eavesdroppers to understand these subtleties? It would be a safe assumption that the NSA computers aren't perfect, that occasionally they captured someone's uncle telling an endlessly boring story about their neighborhood butcher Al Qaeda, who makes a mean marinade. But when from the eaves these waters drop, things usually go wrong. From sitcoms to Shakespeare, what is overheard becomes farce and sometimes the result is death.

In reality, history has shown us that when the federal government does anything secret, it seems to turn out badly. Thus, there is an independent judiciary to check and balance who's doing the listening and who is the overheard. According to The New York Times, which broke the story of domestic spying by the NSA, the administration itself temporarily suspended the program last year because of concerns about its legality. It's likely that one of those concerned was recently offered a seat on the Supreme Court. Now I'm no lawyer, but if it talks like a duck, I should be required to get a wiretap warrant to make sure it's a duck.

Congress will undoubtedly sort out legalities of all this eavesdropping, spying and wiretapping. Until then, I suppose Americans should follow the advice of former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Mr. ARI FLEISCHER (Former White House Press Secretary): They need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that. It never is.

UNGER: And that is today's Unger Report. I'm Brian Unger.

(Credits)

BRAND: And DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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