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December 21, 2005

Scope Creep: The Costs of Total Victory

People who care a tad bit more have certainly digested and spit out a phlemball of analysis on the recent flap over the Presidents' Thirty Authorizations. I'm going to play it like a numbers game, as I usually do, but in the end toss it back at W. I don't like it.

Anybody in Project Management knows the evils of scope creep. That's when you set out to do something and because nobody is quite sure what the beast you're building is going to look like at the end, they keep throwing in little things. If scope creep were allowed at the pizzaria, instead of a pepperoni cheese pizza, you end up with a pepperoni cheese pizza, pulled out of the oven 3 times to add anchovies, olives and chicken. But since you have to cook the chicken first, you get burnt cheese and underdone chicken. In the end the whole pizza tastes like crap, you've spent too much and pissed off the Italian guy. Fortunately most of the Italian guys I knew in Brooklyn wouldn't take all that crap, and they wouldn't take the pie out of the oven to add new stuff. Unfortunately, we've never fought a War on Terror before, and Congress and the public are meddlesome.

It has been four years and we still haven't lost as many soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as we lost civilians on 9/11. As significant as that is, the excuse of 9/11 has provided a whole lot of cover for a massive change in the government bureacracy. You would think that by now the plan to deal with this War On Terror would have some farily specific guidelines - all strictly legal. But no. We have scope creep. Given that Bush won his second term, it's difficult to tell whether it is Bush's pigheadedness or the electorate's meddlesomeness that is driving Bush to put on whatever toppings on this strategic pizza. After all, we demanded that he connect the dots - and that meant connecting intelligence agencies. So today the FBI is connected with the NSA. Whereas the FBI's domestic spying is not a matter of concern, using the NSA to do that breaks down an interagency firewall that has been around since day one. The dorkwads on NPR had the nerve to compare this type of domestic surveillance to Nixon's dirty tricks, making me stop to wonder if their reporters are that stupid or that biased. (I think it's a hefty scoop of both faults). Still, I don't like scope creep and that's what this feels like.

Dare I say 'incompetence'? George W. Bush gets a fair amount of credit from me, but one thing he is not is a brilliant administrator. Nor do I believe that he's using his political capital to defend brilliant administrators. It's all spent on his corner of the White House. So when it comes to managing the Federal bureacracies, I know he runs roughshod all over their professions. Career government employees hate W as a boss, and I sympathize with them.W doesn't master the details and government bureaucrats live on details. These are the details that keep coming to bite him in the butt.

I'm in agreement. in principle, with the concept. If enemies of the state are in Wisconsin, then bug Wisconsin. I also think that despite all the noise some activists have made over airport security, our civil liberties have done just fine since 9/11. I still hate to take off my shoes, and I'm not even convinced that the TSA is making me safer. After all, most of the masterminds of AQ are killed or captured and yes Iraq is still the central front in the WOT. But the Bush Administration is pushing its luck, and every inch they take which pushes the boundaries of executive privilege is particularly irksome, even dangerous. I recognize that this is a particular privilege that the President ordered a long time ago, but it still feels like scope creep. What we have is a no-account Congress whose slatternly ways have not been effective in doing anything but raise pointless points against this imperial president. They keep indicting themselves for a lack of oversight in every finger they point at the President. In the end it's embarrassing to see all the things he is doing thrown back in his face. Why? Because all this sniping does nothing to make an effective policy. It just satisfies critics who take the letter of the law to be wise.

What is clear to me, having heard out a couple Constitutional scholars on the matter of FISA authorizations is that this is a matter of responsibility that Bush is going to have to take. It's not a brazen violation of the 4th Amendment, but technically it could be interpreted as such. But nobody is going to enjoin the President or impeach the president for piercing this veil. The fallout will be mostly political, and now as the resignation of Judge Robertson shows, more corrosive of the government bureacracy. Wreckless George, wreckless.

George W. Bush has to recognize that he cannot deputize everyone in this War. Surely he has to take some extraordinary measures as the imperial president, but they should be legal. We need to win, and we will if we don't break our resolve. Nothing will break our resolve more quickly than forcing people in government to choose between lawlessness and 'total victory'. We will be happy with an ordinary victory, thank you.

Posted by mbowen at December 21, 2005 08:18 AM

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This is so much a non-issue. First, as far as I can tell (and thank God some things in this mess have remained fuzzy) all monitoring was done off shore (that's consistent with any NSA biz I had anything to do with). It seems likely that it involved cascading monitoring to construct influence networks to allow focused application of resources. For example, they get a list of numbers from a bust in Pakistan. They watch to see who, off shore, is calling those numbers and who else those folks are calling (both off shore and back to the States). As the Ts switch networks (i.e. get a new pre-paid cell), they can identify the new numbers being used by the convergence and contact with known numbers. Getting permission from FISA requires you to know whom you will be monitoring, something impossible when the Ts can switch phones as easy as going down to Wal-Mart and laying down $50 for another pre-paid.

As for the strawman choice you offer ("choos[ing] between lawlessness and 'total victory'"), while I've heard many wail about the illegalities I have read several cogent pieces citing legal precedence from as far back as Carter and as recent as Clinton supporting the practice but haven't read one convincing argument refuting them.

Posted by: submandave at December 21, 2005 01:46 PM

Scope creep.
Boy do I know that one. :-(

Posted by: DarkStar [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 21, 2005 07:51 PM

My reading of the situation is different than Dave's. From what I understand the NSA engaged in surveillance on Americans within the states.

Posted by: Lester Spence at December 22, 2005 08:45 AM

I'm not very good about strawmen. I need to engage more bloggers.

By 'lawlessness' I meant pushing government bureaucrats to the edges of their best practices to the point at which Constitutional scholars and legal specialists have to get involved to decide whether something will withstand a court challenge.

I understand that this is technical mincing on the matter of legality, but that's the point. If you already have broad powers and you push the envelope, what kind of victory is that? I also understand that the legislative process and writ of standing law cannot deal with the dynamics of these developing situations and that it's rather easy to come up with scenarios in which the current process is not expedient. I'm questioning Bush's judgement in dealing with motivating bureacracies and saying that he's not a reformer, he's a whip hand.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 22, 2005 08:52 AM

If the terrorists are in Wisconsin, bug Wisconsin? Are you really going to skate past the real issue -- warrants?

Are you satisfied with the line that says "well, we can't get warrants fast enough, because, you know, terrorists are really clever with the way they use cheap technology?" You wanna apply that to investigations of other violent crimes? No? So what principle to you want to argue for why this is so different?

The White House wanted the ability to do secret wiretaps, etc., and made a good case for their necessity -- so we gave the executive branch a special court just to issue the warrants. It was a civil liberties compromise, and one that wasn't taken lightly by CL watchdogs, but at least it acknowledged the principles set forth in the Bill of Rights.

And after all that, that still wasn't enough leeway for the White House. It wanted it's own double-secret, no-accountability program.

And you really want to argue that this is no big deal?

I bitched about Echelon in the 1990s. I'm going to bitch about this in 2005. And if that hampers the White House in Iraq or in Congress or in its fundraising, so what? Actions have consequences, and they chose poorly. Character is destiny.

Yes, the world is mean and hard and venal and corrupt and all that. Yes, I understand that the terrorists don't play by our rules. This is exactly why we should be clinging harder and faster to our fundamental principles -- not rationalizing their abuse on the altar of expediency.

America is supposed to be an idea. Treat that idea like it's quaint and somehow vaguely pink and all we've got left is geography.

Posted by: conover at December 22, 2005 09:33 AM

The geography ain't bad. Considering the likes of Morgan Freeman whom I think is a good guy, maybe all we've got is a wild west mentality - passion for the land and little loyalty to the flag. It ain't very civilized, but it works for most of humanity.

Nevertheless I take your point. I don't like that Bush is pushing the limits of legality because terrorists are clever. I think we need to put some emphasis on our own robustness. That is to say, let a bomber through the gates. America is not going to come apart after one terrorist attack of Columbine dimensions. We need to quit ceding our courage to White House and degrading our laws.

On this issue, I'm starting to turn Libertarian, especially given what I've heard (not yet read) about Posner's ideas on datamining.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 22, 2005 04:11 PM