The ostensible aim of the president's domestic surveillance program, conducted by the supersecret National Security Agency, is to home in on communications into and out of the United States that involve individuals or organizations suspected of some sort of terror connection. But, as The Times reported last week, F.B.I. officials have repeatedly complained that the N.S.A. has bombarded them with thousands upon thousands of unsubstantiated tips - names, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and so forth - that have either led nowhere, or to completely innocent individuals.
Whatever its stated goals, the N.S.A. seems to be operating the greatest fishing expedition in the history of the world.
The American Civil Liberties Union, in a lawsuit seeking a halt to the spying, warned that scholars, lawyers, journalists and others who communicate with people outside the U.S. are already experiencing a chilling effect. People who are doing nothing wrong, but who feel they may become targets of the program, for whatever reasons, are curtailing their conversations and censoring their correspondence, according to the suit.
Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, noted that people who are aware of the surveillance program and who believe that their political views may be seen as hostile by the government, may also become less candid in their telephone conversations and e-mail. Others could unwittingly become the victim of contacts by individuals that the government may be interested in.
He gave an example:
"I recently got a series of e-mails from someone, quite without invitation, that got rather scary in the sense that they started saying positive things about Osama bin Laden. I asked the person in reply to stop e-mailing me, and I got an e-mail today saying, 'Your request is permanently granted.' But in the meantime, granted or not granted, that could easily put me on some kind of targeting list."
Speaking about the potential long-term effect of widespread domestic spying, Professor Tribe said:
"The more people grow accustomed to a listening environment in which the ear of Big Brother is assumed to be behind every wall, behind every e-mail, and invisibly present in every electronic communication, telephonic or otherwise - that is the kind of society, as people grow accustomed to it, in which you can end up being boiled to death without ever noticing that the water is getting hotter, degree by degree.
"The background assumptions of privacy will be gradually eroded to the point where we'll wake up one day, or our children will, and it will seem quaint that people at one time, long ago, thought that they could speak in candor."