February 4, 2006
Wiretap ThisBy Patrick O'Hannigan
She wasn't much for knocking. With her figure, she didn't need to be. She swept into my office on a perfumed wave of good posture and practiced indignation, looking like six feet of perturbed. I put down the Wall Street Journal and pulled my feet off the desk, admiring her hair.
Her blouse was demurely buttoned and her skirt was executive length, but the look in her eye was the one that had earned my squad more pushups than I cared to remember when I'd gift—wrapped it for a drill instructor in my wastrel youth.
I hadn't shined my shoes and it was too late to look busy. She didn't care.
It wasn't my idleness that had furrowed the skin over her perfect nose.
'What can I do for you?' I asked.
'I think George Bush is after me,' she said. 'I think he tapped my phone.'
'Would this be George 'Impeachable Offense' Bush, or somebody I haven't heard of?'
'The President is who I mean.' Her brown eyes flashed warning. 'I'm not kidding.'
'Didn't think you were,' I said, wondering whether she'd played college volleyball back in the day. Doubtless she was close to forty now, but slender. Still enough line in her calves and ankles for a tone poem, as Raymond Chandler used to say. I keep phrases like that on hand. In California, you actually get to use them sometimes.
'What do you want with a private detective? I'm strictly small—time.'
She sat in my guest chair, folding one elegant leg over the other.
'The police would laugh at me. They don't seem to care that Homeland Security opens personal letters. I saw one news report about a retired professor from Kansas. Goodman, I think his name was. Eighty—one years old.
He has a pen pal in the Philippines. Homeland Security went through his mail.'
'I saw that, too. But it sounded more like stupidity than malice. Reminds me of that Christmas story in the Tribune about CIA agents who got busted for felony stupid while taking an Egyptian cleric out of Italy. The cops found the spooks because they forgot to pull the batteries out of their cell phones..'
She wasn't mollified. 'The feds might be stupid, but I'm sick of George Bush breaking the law and getting away with it. Even John Dean says Bush is worse now than Nixon ever was.'
'Watergate John Dean?'
'The very one. He says Nixon wiretapped in the name of national security, too.'
'Yeah, Nixon said something like that. Not that you're old enough to remember. But his 'Enemies List' was short on Muslim names. Hell, his enemies list didn't even have Viet Cong names.'
'What does that have to do with anything?'
'Just my snide way of saying that 'national security' means different things to different people. Sometimes it's actually at stake.'
'The New York Times says an acting attorney general raised objections to what Bush is doing with the National Security Agency,' she volunteered.
I was impressed. 'You read a lot. Did you catch the part about how the White House listened to those objections, revamped the program, and then got the revamped program certified by the AG?'
'The Times didn't say anything about that.'
'They wouldn't. Probably didn't mention that the White House has been briefing Congress all the while, either. But let's get back to you. Why would the President be after you?'
'Because I'm against this stupid war, and I've said so publicly.'
'That's not a crime.'
'It is on Bushworld.'
I didn't know her name, but the woman across my desk was beginning to remind me of why I kept a whiskey bottle in the bottom drawer.
'Just a minute, darlin'' I always seem to get Southern and condescending at the same time. She jerked backward.
I hooked a thumb at my phone. 'Do you know what a pen register is?'
'It's a surveillance device that captures phone numbers dialed on outgoing telephone calls. If you want to gather numbers for incoming calls, that's a trap and trace. You follow?'
'Guess I came to the right detective.'
'Point is, neither a pen register nor a trap and trace reveals the actual content of a phone call. And you don't need a warrant for a pen register.
There's no expectation of privacy in 'envelope' type information, even if it's normally read only by machines, not human beings.'
'Are you trying to be comforting?'
'No, ma'am, I'm just sharing information. I'm saying there are reputable people who disagree with John Dean. Cass Sunstein, for one. He teaches law at the University of Chicago.'
'I know what a FISA court is, and Bush bypassed those, too, even though they rubber—stamp requests from the president.'
'First Nixon, then Carter. You major in American history, or something?'
'Women's Studies, if you really want to know.'
'Doesn't matter. The rubber stamp business is agitprop. Ever hear of Zacarias Moussaoui? That jerkoff was supposed to be the twentieth hijacker on 9/11. FBI agents in Minneapolis had his laptop computer a month before his buddies took the Twin Towers down, but couldn't do anything with it for lack of a warrant, FISA or no FISA. What I'm saying is that J. Edgar Hoover was the guy who made a career out of spying on people, not George W. Bush.'
'What about checks and balances?' She was indignant.
'Put down the New York Times and pick up the Weekly Standard. If you're saying that no branch of government should act in critical times without approval from another branch of government, then you're forgetting that the Founding Fathers also had a thing for separation of powers. Read the Federalist Papers: 'energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.' Or if you think Hamilton was a fascist, try Jefferson. Old Tom said: '[w]here different branches have to act in their respective lines' they may give the Constitution 'different and opposite constructions.''
'You wouldn't give me all that crap about historical precedent if you didn't like the President.'
'I'm not talking about the President. I'm talking about executive branch and the FISA courts. While New York Times guys try to split the difference between 'good leaks' and 'bad leaks,' a Seattle paper put the rubber stamp myth to rest. I didn't have any presents to wrap Christmas Eve, so I spent more time than I should have poking around the Internet. You know what I found?
I pulled the printout from my desk:
'I didn't come in here to be lectured,' she reproached me.
'I'm sure that's so, but unless you're calling some old flame named Achmed in Syria, I'm betting it's probably not the NSA on your phone, so there's no point in drinking Democratic Kool—Aid just because the can has pictures of Barbara Boxer and Ted Kennedy on it. We are at war, after all.'
'I'm not convinced. But what's your rate?'
'Now you're talking. You want a cup of coffee?'
Published with the permission of 'Rogue Voice,' a hardscrabble, print—only literary journal published from a tool shed in Cayucos, California, in whose February 2006 edition this originally appeared.