The media have been devoting much airtime and ink, but little thought, to the real issues of the email and phone surveillance, and in case someone at NPR is actually concerned about covering the whole story, I sent the following letter:
Your coverage of the revelation that Americans have had their correspondence secretly monitored has been entirely within the context of detecting would-be terrorists, and within that framework people support it. You have failed to ask a few things that would reframe the debate. I would like to hear your reporters ask these two questions of the people you interview:
1. Do you believe that if the government has access to a trove of data on all citizens, this data will never be used for political purposes by an administration determined to stay in power, or to tarnish the reputation of those with whom it disagrees?
To anybody who says, "Certainly not - that could never happen," I might remind them of the Watergate burglaries. If each of those actions - burglary of information and bugging of offices, directed from the White House - had been against an actual enemy of the USA such as foreign spies or the mafia, it would have been a legal and defensible operation. Instead they were done by an American administration against political enemies for the sole purpose of swaying an election. It must be noted that the operation was successful - Richard Nixon and the Republicans succeeded in winning the subsequent election partly because they knew the Democratic Party's strategies. The precedent is clear - American administrations will collude with political parties to influence elections, and that strategy does work.
When J. Edgar Hoover used the power of the FBI to seek information to discredit civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, it was a blatant intrusion of the mechanism of government into social discourse and policy. Does anybody really believe that such a thing could never happen again - and are they so certain of it that they want to give unaccountable institutions that much power? Remember that the data will be at the service of any government, so even if you are comfortable with one party having the power, there is every likelihood that it will be available to their opponents sooner or later.
2. Do you believe that if someone is brought up on charges based on evidence collected through this secret monitoring, the defense will be given the complete transcripts of information so that they might rebut the charges?
Cardinal Richelieu famously said "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him." Lots of other things have changed since the 17th century, but not this. Creatively edited transcripts of conversations are used all the time in politics to destroy careers, and here have been instances in which law enforcement agencies have done the same. Now imagine that every email, every conversation is recorded and sifted. You know that when you said "I'm going to kill my boss for making me stay late again," it was not an actual threat - but by using that bit of hyperbole, you have just stated your intention to commit murder, and anyone who you said that to who does not report it becomes an accessory. More importantly, if you say in the next sentence that you don't actually intend to do so, that fact just might not make it into the records that are given to a prosecutor, and might not be shared with your defense attorney. The government has been given a tool with incredible potential to frame someone for a crime, and since they have the only record of the entire conversation, they have the ability to suppress the evidence available to the defense. Most Americans are queasy about the fact that prisoners in Guantanamo can be held based on secret evidence and not allowed to see the totality of the evidence against them, but they justify this because it is only applicable to a small number of foreigners in a faraway island. With the revelation of this program, that potential has been extended to the entire United States.
It is an indictment of the mainstream media that these questions are not being asked - that the reporters are pretending that this data will be used only by incorruptible public servants to pursue enemies of the American people. The editorial pages have been silent, focusing on the man who leaked the information rather than the consequences of the program. We need someone to provide analysis based on history, and history shows us that administrators, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials do not have a good track record of using information honestly, wisely, or for the purpose for which it was intended. The ethical transgressions do not often happen in the moments after technology makes them possible because too many people are watching right then, but they come eventually, and a little more of our civil rights and liberties are eroded away.
With great power comes great responsibility - or at least it should. There has never been greater power than that which was revealed this week, or less oversight over how it is used. Is it too much to ask that the institutions that have the power to demand answers from the powerful should investigate this in a bit greater depth?
It will be interesting to see if there is any response... Perhaps if DK members raise these issues with their local press outlets we can force these questions to be asked, and then see how the answers change.