Posted on July 27, 2013
Beck’s Penalty Box
Bachmann needn’t feel shame
Ronald Reagan used to say that the problem with our liberal friends is not that they’re stupid; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so. Well, the problem with our libertarian friends like Glenn Beck is that they know so much that isn’t even known, especially not by themselves.
Beck, the formerly conservative talk radio host who of late has been spiraling toward the depths of hyper-libertarian weirditude, had been a supporter of Michele Bachmann’s during the 2012 presidential primaries. During his July 25th broadcast, however, he declared the congresswoman to be “not dead to me, but in very, very, very ill health.” For good measure, he repeatedly scolded, “Shame on you!” What precipitated this melodramatic turn was Bachmann’s defense of the NSA’s collection of phone metadata, while helping to defeat an amendment that would have defunded the program.
Rep. Bachmann had argued on the House floor that, “A false narrative has emerged that the federal government is taking the content of Americans’ phone calls. It’s not true. It’s not happening.” The information the NSA is collecting contains the numbers of the calls’ participants, the locations of cell phones, and the duration of each call. It does not include the content of people’s conversations. Many of the program’s critics have declared to the contrary that it involves eavesdropping on Americans’ phone calls. For Bachmann to describe this as a false narrative is entirely accurate.
There’s certainly a valid argument to be made that the government shouldn’t be collecting this data, but instead, Beck shot back with what was, if not another false narrative, then at least a fabricated narrative about something that is unknown. “What are they storing in the Utah NSA data storage facility?” he demanded. Of course, the exact nature of the data to be held at that still unopened complex is unknown, to him as well as the rest of us. Nevertheless, he is absolutely certain that it will house recordings of Americans’ phone calls, gleaned from the very NSA program of which Bachmann spoke.
Actually, this is about the least likely of all conclusions. The metadata are the only phone records that the FISA court has authorized the NSA to collect. They’re just numbers. There’s no way to wring the content of the calls out of them. The Utah storage facility could more plausibly be used as a mausoleum for alien bodies from Area 51 than for collecting phone conversations from this particular NSA program.
Beck reacted indignantly to Bachmann’s claim that the phone book contains more personal information than the NSA metadata. This is not as clear-cut as her “false narrative” charge, but it’s an easily defensible statement. The metadata do not even identify the callers by name, let alone disclose their addresses. Beck, however, calls this argument “insulting,” which is a whole lot easier than explaining why it’s wrong.
The final “insult” was Bachmann’s perfectly logical metaphor that the metadata are to the content of the phone calls as the outside of an envelope is to the letter inside. This doesn’t necessarily validate the program, though. A reasonable person might argue that the government shouldn’t be recording the contents of the outsides of our envelopes. Beck could easily have opposed the metadata collection, while also recognizing the truthfulness of Bachmann’s remarks.
Instead, he lectured, “Please don’t treat me like a moron,” meaning of course that Bachmann was lying, although he never used that word. “They are storing records on every single American,” he insisted. “All of our e-mails and all of our purchases are being stored – and we know that!”
We don’t know any such thing. Under the PRISM internet surveillance program, warrants must be issued to collect that kind of information about specific individual suspects. Perhaps there are ways to abuse that program for the purpose of accessing innocent Americans’ online transactions, but even if we assume that, it’s got nothing to do with the completely separate phone data program that Bachmann is talking about. If the feds really are collecting our e-mails and online purchases, passage of the amendment in question would have had no impact on their ability to do so.
The only offense Bachmann has committed is that she’s told truths that don’t fit into the libertarian template. For that, Beck wants to send her to the penalty box to feel shame. She is not the one who should feel shame over this episode, however, any more than she’s the one who is very, very, very ill.
The Shinbone: The Frontier of the Free Press