BROOKE GLADSTONE: When Ross first revealed in his blog what he'd learned about his phone records, he said he didn't know if they were provided to the government as part of the NSA's recently disclosed program to gather all domestic call records. It turned out, it was the FBI. But journalist and defense analyst Bill Arkin says Ross should have known that. A leak investigation is different from the domestic data trawling reported in USA Today, and it's also different from the tracking of international calls for keywords, which made headlines last December in The New York Times. Arkin wrote in The Washington Post Online this week that he was concerned about the creation of what he called "a seamless surveillance culture", but he was also worried about reporters who muddied the waters by lumping all such programs together. And he suggested that journalists' obsession with their phone records bordered on narcissism. Now, Arkin has spent much of his own career publishing secret information from well-placed government sources, and is a prime target for just the sort of investigation that Ross complained of. So we wondered why he was so exasperated with his colleagues. Bill, welcome back to the show.
BILL ARKIN: Thanks for having me on, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anybody hearing about federal law enforcement officials keeping tallies on reporters' calls is going to think immediately of the various NSA programs we've been hearing about lately. Is that a fair leap to make?
BILL ARKIN: Well, first of all, it's an unfair leap to think that the federal government is listening in on reporters' calls, or keeping track of them. If there is veracity behind Brian Ross's story, then it is because, retrospectively, as part of the leak investigation, they can look at who they spoke to. And if those people are stupid enough to speak to reporters on their official phones or over their official email, then they are going to be caught. So, to conflate that with contemporaneous monitoring of reporters' phone calls, which would require a warrant, it would require a criminal investigation, even more, I think would be a grave error.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you wrote in a column this week that there is no enemies list. What were you responding to?
BILL ARKIN: You know, I think that the whole public assumption about these NSA revelations is that they somehow are the tip of the iceberg of a new Nixonian enemies list, that they're politically motivated, and that reporters and political people are the target. What I'm urging people to understand, in order to understand these programs, is that they have to see it through a 21st century lens, and not a 1960's lens. Think of it in your own lives. There has been an explosion of communications, from instant messaging to text messaging over telephones, to the explosion of cell phones themselves, etc. There has just been an exponential growth in the signals environment, and it happens to correspond more or less with 2000, 2001 to the present. So there is something that has changed in the world, that even if there weren't a war on terrorism, the monitors, the NSA people, would be out there scratching their heads saying, "Wow, there are so many more communications here, how do we tease out of it the intelligence information of value?" And it might appear that we should just see it, once again, as some Nixonian Enemies List, accumulating in the bowels of the White House, but I think the truth of the matter is that what we are seeing is a 21st century struggle to keep up with a vastly exploding communications environment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you completely then discount the views of those who say, look, the government may now be assembling this data, these tools to track our enemies, but it can also use it to track its enemies, which could be reporters, critics, people from the other party? I mean, that is Nixonian. If Nixon had these tools, that's how he'd use them.
BILL ARKIN: Well, I think if we can imagine that the government is building a capacity for monitoring that looks like the capacity that exists in Hollywood -- with a few strokes of the keyboard and the use of the mouse, I can tell you who you are, where you are today, what you had for breakfast and the name of your dog -- if you imagine that that's what's going on then, of course, it looks like the President and the government is building a magnificent mechanism for domestic repression. They are so far away from being there, Brooke. [BROOKE LAUGHING] They are not anywhere close to that capacity. But it's not to say that they're not trying. It's not to say that we're not spending billions of dollars a year on these pattern recognition and data mining programs, in which they are trying to crunch vast amounts of information, and with that capacity, we are building a seamless surveillance culture, in which the possibility of government abuse in the future is there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And why are you telling us then to calm down?
BILL ARKIN: I'm telling you that we should understand what the real problem is. The real problem is not that Brian Ross's phone calls are being monitored. The real problem is that the changes in the nature of intelligence collection, bolstered by these greater freedoms that the White House wants to take as a result of 9/11, have challenged us to come up with new laws, new congressional oversight, new understandings of privacy and civil liberties, and there isn't a person who seems to be able to approach this in a non-partisan reasonable way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a follow up on its big story last week, USA Today reported that two-thirds of Americans are concerned that the NSA call tracking program may just be the tip of the iceberg, and that there may be other, as yet undisclosed, spying programs on American citizens. Are you among that two-thirds?
BILL ARKIN: I'm not concerned that there are undisclosed programs that are spying on normal Americans. I'm concerned that two-thirds of Americans are so confused about what it is that the government is doing, and what it is that the government can do, within the limits of the law. That's what I'm concerned about, is that the American public needs to be completely on board with what it is that its government is doing! It's not going to get on board, however, if we overstate what it is that the government is doing, if we mischaracterize what it is that the government is doing, or if we accept that the government in fact knows what it's doing and is doing something useful, and we should just shut up and go home because it's men's work. [BROOKE LAUGHS] The reality here, Brooke, is that I don't know whether or not this is useful or useless, but the only way we're going to find out is by not overstating either the gravity of the situation or the importance of the intelligence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Bill, thank you very much.
BILL ARKIN: Thanks for having me on, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Arkin writes the Early Warning column at Washingtonpost.com.
MIKE PESCA: Coming up, Hot in Hollywood: sequels, Kaballah, and the average temperature of the earth.