Friday, May 12, 2006 at 05:36 PM

You know this new television game show, Deal or No Deal, where contestants have to decide whether to take a cash offer or keep trying to get a higher amount by opening suitcases with various money amounts? That also sounds like a good name for this little exercise in Catch 22-iness that BushCo. plays with the NSA spying. Would anyone in their right mind accept the administration's endless string of "can't talk about it, but its okay, trust us?"

Here's a composite of the "give and take" between the press and the various Bush mouthpieces on NSA spying. Deal? Or no deal?

Q. What exactly does the NSA do in its spying program or programs?

The operational details are classified.

Q. Then how do we know that the programs are legal?

The appropriate people in Congress have been briefed and have not objected.

Q. Can you tell us who those people are?

You'll have to ask Congress.

Q. Did the briefings include the full details needed to know if the program complies with the law?

I can't comment on that/you'll have to ask congress.

Q. How do you decide who to listen to or surveil?

I can't talk about operational details.

Q. Did you have lawyers, constitutional experts, review the program for legality?

Yes we did.

Q. Who reviewed it?

I can't talk about that.

Q. Can the Department of Justice investigate the program?

Of course.

Q. The full program?

Q. They can only see the operational details if their investigators have the requisite clearance.

Q. Who gives out the clearances?

The NSA.

Q. So the NSA has to give investigators permission to investigate the NSA?

Only as to operational details.

Q. But the details that concern us all, the details that will determine if the program is legal or illegal are all "operational details."

The president and everyone at NSA is working tirelessly to protect the privacy of innocent Americans.

Q. You say "innocent Americans" implying that Americans who aren't innocent aren't being protected.

We are not in the business of protecting the guilty.

Q. But who decides who is innocent, and what criteria are used?

I can't get into the operational details.

Q. But that means that the President and--whoever--at NSA are deciding on their own, with no oversight, who is guilty of something--suspicious behavior?--and who is innocent. Where's the protection of an objective third party that the Constitution requires?

The appropriate people in Congress are being briefed.

Q. But you can't tell us who those appropriate people are?

You'll have to ask the appropriate people in Congress.

Q. How do you expect the public to buy this, to allow a single man, the president, to decide in secret who should be spied on, who should be tapped, atc?

If someone in America is talking to al Qaeda, we certainly want to know about it, and why. Al Qaeda is our enemy and we want to know their plans.

Q. But there's absolutely no protection for the public. No warrants, no oversight, no one but you knows what's going on.

As I've said, the appropriate people in Congress are being regulalry briefed.

Q. And you tell these appropriate people--whoever they are--enough details for them to know if you're going beyond the law?

We tell them what's appropriate. The president and General Hayden have been very clear that all NSA activity has been lawful.

Q. But lawful according to who? Who evaluated the lawfulness?

I can't answer that question.

Q. Given your refusal to address the nature of these spy programs, to even tell us who has reviewed their legality, surely you understand why some people in the government have taken the risk of divulging the existence and general nature of some of the NSA programs?

Whoever has leaked this information is harming our ability to fight the terrorists. It is immoral and likely illegal to leak the details of classified programs.

Q. Yet it turns out that you, or people in the administration, were the ones who leaked the fact that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent.

This information was not leaked. It was simply declassified so that divulging it would not be a leak, if we assume that anyone in this administration gave that information to the media. A fact, by the way, for which there is no hard evidence.

Q. But the president doesn't have the unfettered power to declassify confidential information off the top of his head.

We disagree. Our consultants say that this power is inherent in the president's status as commander-in-chief.

Q. What experts?

I can't answer that question.

Q. But divulging information about a covert agent is harmful to that agent, to other agents, and to the country at large. Even if the President does have the inherent power to do it.

The president would not have done it if the information was harmful to the country.

Q. But Ms, Plame was working on Iran and WMD, helping to analyze whether Iran has WMD, what types of WMD; her diminished ability to work on that project must surely have hurt our efforts in that area.

Your question assumes a role for Ms. Plame on a confidential project. I can't get into the operational details of a classified project.

And are the people buying it? Sounds like a "DEAL" so far. Check out the ABC/Washington Post opinion poll taken since the most recent NSA story broke:

NSA Phone Records Program
Is collecting phone records acceptable?* 35%
Would it bother you if there was a record of your phone calls? 34 66

***Actual question is:
4. It's been reported that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. It then analyzes calling patterns in an effort to identify possible terrorism suspects, without listening to or recording the conversations. Would you consider this an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government terrorism? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?