Alan Westin, in his seminal book on the subject, “Privacy and Freedom,” defined the key word as “the right to control information about ourselves.”
In the 30 years that have passed since publication of this definitive work, we have seen steady erosion of this fundamental right. Americans have enjoyed a special liberty, envied by the world.
And now it comes most clearly in focus in the president’s right to electronically spy on U.S. citizens who make overseas calls to those who might be in contact with the terrorists who terrorize our world. Both President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, each in different forums, have vigorously asserted the notion that the right to privacy must topple when confronted with undisclosed and unmonitored national security interests.
What have they had to say about the steady erosion of the right to privacy?
Bush maintained with warlord conviction in a speech to the University of Kansas that, “What I’m talking about is the intercept of certain communications emanating between somebody inside the United States and outside the United States; and one of the members would be reasonably suspected to be an al-Qaeda link or affiliate. In other words, we have ways to determine whether or not someone can be an al-Qaeda link or affiliate of al-Qaeda. And if they’re making a phone call in the United States, it seems like to me we want to know why.”
Gonzales weighed in on “The PBS News Hour.” He criticized the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which establishes a special court to authorize eavesdropping. The attorney general said he did not honor the FISA and, in the minds of some, his answer was disingenuous: “For operational reasons, there were some issues that made it difficult to use FISA …”
In his recent testimony before the U.S. Senate, this highest law enforcement official in America opined that President Bush is, to paraphrase, fully empowered to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants as part of the war on terror. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Gonzales that even the Supreme Court ruled that “the president does not have a blank check,” and that’s why the program’s legality, or not, must be reviewed by a special federal court. Recall, that’s the federal court that “for operational reasons, there were some issues … that made it difficult to use FISA …”
So that’s the party line: We are at war and the Constitution and acts of Congress must give way. Someone smart once said patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Is that what is happening here?
For those arguing that Bush & Co. are well-intentioned, for-real patriots who seek no less than to protect America from a repeat of 9/11, a reasonable reflection, consider what is being done.
Since the twin towers melted to the earth, the National Security Agency has monitored approximately 500 conversations a day. Some estimate this to be 500,000 Americans to date. This is called, in legal nomenclature, a “fishing” or “mining” expedition. A person calling Pakistan with intent on sending relief aid can fall within the net. Then, with computer wizardry, the NSA is empowered with a systematic monitoring of all phone transmissions, credit card transactions and all paper trail left thereafter. As Huffington Post blogger/columnist Bob Burnett pointed out, it matters not if that Pakistani call was to seek advice as to send a relief donation by means of a Visa card … and he got a wrong number. The Red Flag is raised. His private transactions thereafter are a matter of government business, matters he assumed were personal, private. He lost control of information about himself.
It is a political science maxim that once a government takes away a right, it fights like hell never to give it back. In the name of National Security, the noose tightens around the necks of law-abiding, patriotic citizens, whose only offense is to call overseas. So it is said.
But why the reticence to allow a federal court to review the surveillance? Is there more to this than the administration wishes us to know? Look at history.
Many Americans do not trust the government generally and the Bush administration specifically. Legal oversight raises suspicions that only a federal court can sort out. We can merely hope. Thus far, a trip to downtown seems too much to ask.
But anyway, I’m Carl Brown, Louisville’s Plain Brown Rapper, and that’s just my own damn opinion. If you don’t like it, sue me. Just listen to the steady sound of your rights dripping away …
Contact the writer at [email protected]