David Simon Says We Shouldn’t Be Upset About NSA Intercepts

Slate's Culture Blog
June 7 2013 2:28 PM

David Simon Says We Shouldn’t Be Upset About NSA Intercepts

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David Simon in 2006

Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Much of the world is up in arms this week over revelations that the NSA has been conducting massive surveillance of cellphone calls and Internet traffic. One person who is not upset by the news? David Simon.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

The creator of the classic HBO drama The Wire, and a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Simon is no stranger to the subject of surveillance. And he believes that many of the people angered by this week’s reports simply don’t understand the matter. More specifically, he gets the impression that “the entire news media—as well as the agitators and self-righteous bloviators on both sides of the aisle” do “not understand even the rudiments of electronic intercepts and the manner in which law enforcement actually uses such intercepts.” (Even more specifically, he thinks the New York Times editorial board “displayed an astonishing ignorance of the realities of modern electronic surveillance in its quick, shallow wade into this non-controversy.”) And he has explained why he gets that impression in a 2,500-word post on his website.

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Simon likens what the NSA is doing to the wiretaps he wrote about as a Baltimore reporter (and which inspired major storylines on The Wire). In those cases, city detectives tapped public payphones which were used by many, many people, all of whom had an expectation of privacy. The detectives then monitored all the calls being made on the phones. A judge allowed them to do this, Simon says, because they weren’t listening to the calls. It is only when they want to listen to such calls, Simon argues, that the law “requires a full-blooded argument of probable cause.” (In a news conference today, Obama emphasized that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”)

“The only thing new” in this week’s reports about the NSA, according to Simon, at least “from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the FBI and NSA are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. But the legal and moral principles? Same old stuff.”

Simon calls the “collection of all raw data involving telephonic and Internet traffic by Americans” both “inevitable and understandable.” And near the end of his post, he emphasizes that “those planes really did hit those buildings,” and “that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically-motivated enemy.” He acknowledges that there “are reasons to object to governmental overreach in the name of law enforcement and anti-terrorism,” but he thinks we should “be more incensed at the notion of an American executive branch firing missiles at U.S. citizens and killing them without the benefit of even an in absentia legal proceeding” than by what the NSA is doing with these surveillance programs.

If we learn of “FISA-court approved intercepts of innocent Americans that occurred because weak probable cause was acceptable,” then, he says, we should get upset. But we shouldn’t, in his opinion, be bothered—or surprised—by this data collection. “Frankly,” he says, “I’m a bit amazed that the NSA and FBI have their shit together enough to be consistently doing what they should be doing with the vast big-data stream of electronic communication.”

Read more on Slate about the NSA’s secret snooping programs.

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