The word “relevance” has now been officially tortured into a new word that means essentially nothing at all, as the Obama Administration’s “white paper” on surveillance stakes out a position claiming ridiculous levels of power based on the post-“enhanced interrogation” version of the word.
For years, the NSA’s telephone surveillance scheme never needed a public defense, because the public was never supposed to know about it in the first place. The Justice Department, asked to come up with one (which was obviously written long after the fact because it insists within the whitepaper that much of the program is too classified to defend at all), noticed that they have the power to collect things relevant to terror investigations, and decided that would work great if we’re not too picky on the word relevance.
And they’re not too picky, noting that most phone calls by most Americans have literally nothing to do with terrorism, but arguing that if you wad up all the data on all phone calls into a big database some of the calls might conceivably be relevant, and the others would catch relevance like some communicable disease.
It’s a lazy, and not particularly persuasive defense. Essentially it’s like putting a few frames of a bin Laden video into the middle of a South Park marathon and arguing that every single episode shown was “relevant” because bin Laden showed up that one time.
If the analogy sounds ridiculous, it’s because the argument is, because the Justice Department literally focuses their public case on the idea that courts will grant “relevance” to anything adjacent to something really relevant, even if that adjacency was done by the NSA after the fact just for the hell of it. The burden of proof is impossibly weak, but given FISA courts’ role as a rubber-stamp behind a locked door, it’s also entirely plausible that they’re correct about how little it takes to satisfy judges.