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It's Funny Because It's True: Colbert on NSA Spying

Anna Christensen,
National Security Project
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October 23, 2008

Not surprisingly, the recent revelation that the NSA had invaded the privacy of hundreds of Americans abroad and their loved ones back home generated a public outcry. Two former military intercept operators recounted their eavesdropping experiences on ABC News — recalling that they and their colleagues had regularly listened to, traded, and joked about American citizens’ personal and often highly intimate conversations. They revealed that the NSA engaged in invasive, unnecessary, and dragnet monitoring of innocent Americans, including soldiers, journalists, and aid workers with groups like the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. (We’re demanding that the NSA turn over policies and procedures for how the NSA collects, stores, and disseminates Americans’ private communications.)

As civil libertarians, we may have become somewhat accustomed to this administration’s apparent determination to trample on our rights. For years the ACLU has been fighting against the NSA’s warrantless monitoring of Americans’ communications here in the United States . Indeed, the new reports confirm what we have been saying all along: the NSA’s monitoring is not limited to suspected terrorists (as Bush Administration officials claim). Rather, the NSA is collecting the telephone calls and emails of innocent Americans, often in a suspicion-less and vacuum cleaner-like fashion.

Nonetheless, last week’s reports sound like some kind of joke. That the government has wasted our tax dollars and intelligence resources listening to transatlantic phone sex seems better suited to The Onion than to ABC News. It’s only logical, then, that perhaps some of the most scathing coverage of the scandal came from comedian Stephen Colbert, whose recent report on the program (“The Word: Freaky Three-Way Calling”) hit home as much as that of any of the pundits:

Colbert’s observation about listening to Americans because they speak English might have been more outlandish if it weren’t the case that the U.S. government is strapped for foreign-language speakers. In fact, as of last month, only one percent of military personnel spoke any of the languages judged to be of “critical importance” in investigating suspected terrorists.

According to the military intercept officers interviewed by ABC, they were simply ordered to transcribe everything. And, according to one officer — quoted in James Bamford’s book The Shadow Factory, which prompted the ABC story — when she complained about collecting known aid workers’ communications rather than blocking them out, her supervisor told her she had to keep monitoring them “just in case [the aid workers] ever talked about seeing weapons of mass destruction anywhere and gave a location” or “in case they ever lost their phone and some random terrorist picked up and started using it.”

I recently saw a story that recounted events in a Canadian courtroom, as prosecutors struggled to prove the defendants’ involvement in a terrorist plot:

Video from a camp north of Toronto in December 2005 shows a car spinning around in a nearby, snow-covered parking lot. Prosecutors characterized that as special driver training but the defense, and many outsiders, said it was nothing more than “cutting doughnuts,” a favorite winter pastime of young Canadian motorists.

Colbert? Saturday Night Live? No, this time it was The New York Times, reporting on the U.S.-backed terrorism prosecution of the “Toronto 18“. Sound familiar? Maybe I’m just slow, but I don’t think I’m not the only one who needed a few minutes to distinguish The New York Times and Comedy Central. Couldn’t the idea of “cutting donuts” as an elaborate jihadist plot fit right in to Colbert’s portrayal of the so-called “war on terror”?

When the line between comedy and news becomes this fuzzy, we have a real problem. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart’s nightly roasts of the real news, scathing satire on current events, and a growing repertoire of amateur YouTube videos dedicated to political satire aren’t meant to distract us from current events; they’re meant to alert us, to warn us that politics is becoming a little too outrageous. Of course we need the “real” media to keep us informed and to provide a variety of perspectives, but for a reality check, the best course of political action is to just keep laughing.

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