Thursday, October 11, 2012

Strawmanning Telecom Immunity

On December 16, 2005 The New York Times published an article revealing that the US government, in collusion with all major telecommunications firms operating in the US, had engaged in a massive effort to illegally eavesdrop on the phone calls of US citizens. This article, already delayed several months to help Bush win reelection in 2004, demonstrated that for many years the US government had illegally eavesdropped on numerous calls (the exact number is not available since, like most of this stuff, it is classified). Despite this clear and widespread pattern of law-breaking, enormous efforts were made to immunize everyone who had participated in this lawless activity. In 2008, for example, a law was passed that retroactively immunized these telecom firms from lawsuits and criminal prosecution for their collusion with the US government in committing these illegal acts. Then, just yesterday, the Supreme Court blocked any possible legal recourse against these illegal activities by declining to review a lawsuit that had been filed against these telecom firms.

In much of the coverage of this issue, there is an enormous amount of straw manning. A Straw Man is a fallacy in which one intentionally distorts or misrepresents an opponent's position. We can see an excellent example of this in CNN's coverage of the Supreme Court refusal to review the issue. The headline for the article reads:

Court upholds U.S. gov't immunity in terror eavesdropping

And the first paragraph of the article says:
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday left in place a law that allows the Justice Department to stop suits against telecommunications companies for participating in wiretaps of potential terrorists.
Both the headline and the opening paragraph completely distort the issue in question. Literally no one has ever suggested that the US government not spy on suspected terrorists. The issue here is that the government was not spying on suspected terrorists, it was spying on everybody regardless of any suspicion or evidence that the people being eavesdropped on were terrorists. To claim otherwise as CNN does in its article is to straw man opponents of illegal wiretapping as terrorist sympathizers when nothing could be further from the truth. The Supreme Court was not upholding the right of the government to eavesdrop on suspected terrosists, it was upholding the right of the government to eavesdrop on anyone for no reason. This is why this case is such a big deal because it demonstrates the further erosion of civil liberties that has occured since the terrorist attack of 9-11. That CNN so grossly misreports this issue is another telling sign of how broken the media system in the US really is.

Here is Glenn Greenwald discussing the issue and providing his, as always, insightful analysis.

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