In the wake of the (USA Today) report, President Bush -- without confirming or denying the existence of such a program -- insisted that NSA intelligence activities are lawful and target only al Qaeda.What Bush means is, "even though we're collecting this data, we're not going to use it against regular guys." But that's not remotely the same as saying that privacy is being protected. Privacy, like liberty, is one of those things that exists naturally and perfectly so long as no one infringes on it. It's not a thing government can give you; it's something the government can only protect by leaving it alone.
"The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval," he said Thursday. "The privacy of ordinary Americans is being fiercely protected."
But collecting data, even if that data is never used, is an infringement of privacy, which is, according to Webster: "The quality or condition of being secluded from the presence or view of others." When the government uncovers your actions, when it looks at you, your things, or what you are doing, it is invading your privacy.
Of course, none of us can have an expectation of perfect privacy. Anytime we go out in public, we forfeit the right to not be looked at. And most of us don't particularly care. Madonna summed up much of American thinking when she asked what the point of doing something was if no one was watching. Americans are not a private people.
But if the privacy of Americans was being fiercely protected, the government would not only be not collecting that data itself, it would be ensuring that others do not collect it either. The very act of collecting it ensures that someday, somehow (like in the case of the Clinton White House's perusal of hundreds of FBI files) that data will be used, and someone's privacy will be violated, eventually, by the very government that is supposedly protecting it.
UPDATE: I probably ought to qualify this by admitting that I run a government database, filled with all manner of personal data. Most of it is collected from direct interaction with those whose records I keep, some of it is gathered from public records, a little of it is purchased from others who mine it from sources unknown to me but which I assume to be public, and I am responsible not only for making sure that data is accurate, but that it is used only for the purposes for which it is collected.
So how does that differ from the above? The first way is that I don't claim to be fiercely protecting the privacy of individuals. I guard data. Maybe there's no difference to the individual, but if I can look at your data (and I can) then it's not private. Secondly, I understand that it could be abused and have procedures in place to ensure that it's not abused. But - and this is a huge but - *I* have uninhibited access to it all and could abuse it, just like the guys who run the database above.
The database I operate must exist for many reasons, not the least of which is tax accounting. I can do everything in my power to secure the data, but I'll never deny that an individual's privacy would be more secure if I didn't collect it in the first place.