Tuesday, June 26, 2012

I can't tell you if I am violating your privacy. That would be a violation of your privacy.

A Circular Argument (often called Begging the Question) is a fallacy in which one states or assumes the conclusion in one of the premises. The name is fairly descriptive in that one is arguing in a circle in which the conclusion is true because it is supported by the premise, but the premise in turn depends on the conclusion in order for it to be true. As Bradley Dowden puts it, "Circular reasoning occurs when the reasoner begins with what he or she is trying to end up with."

I was reminded of this fallacy when I cam across this article by David Sirota. In it, he links to this report from Wired's Spencer Ackerman discussing the National Security Agency's (NSA) response to a request for information on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) wiretaps from two US Senators on the Intelligence Oversight Committee. FISA was a law originally passed in 1978 which set up procedures for the surveillance of communications between "foreign powers" and their agents in the US. This law was then amended in 2008 in the wake of a NYT report on how the government had enlisted major telecom firms to (seemingly illegally) aid the government in its surveillance efforts. Under this amended form, in addition to retroactively immunizing telecoms for their illegal activities, the government further relaxed the standards for allowing surveillance of US citizens. Since the law is up for renewal later this year, the aforementioned Senators, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Mark Udall (D-Colorado) sent a request (PDF) to the NSA asking for, among other things, a rough estimate of how many Americans had been spied on. It is the response (PDF) to this request, authored by I. Charles McCullough III, Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, that I want to focus on.

In this letter, McCullough argues that he can't satisfy Wyden and Udall's request because, "an IG review of the sort suggested would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons." Ignoring for now the obvious non sequitur (Wyden and Udall were only looking for a number, not the names of those surveilled), we see a very nice example of circular reasoning. In effect, McCullough is arguing the following: We can't give you information about the impact of this law on the privacy of US Citizens because that would violate the privacy of US Citizens; we can't allow you to evaluate whether this law violates privacy because that would be a violation of privacy.

If I can editorialize for a moment (which I can because this is my blog), I am not sure Kafka or Heller could come up with a more absurd demonstration of bureaucratic obfuscation.

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