An insidious culture of surveillance
By Thomas Oliphant, Globe Columnist
Globe" -- -- IT ALWAYS STARTS SMALL, almost
In a basically free society, abuses of civil and human rights often
initially make sense, which appears to have been the case when
President Bush took his baby steps toward a system of warrant-free,
electronic surveillance of persons inside the United States -- some
citizens, some not.
Over time, however, the inch that government first takes becomes a
mile, and that also appears to have been the case, as senators and
congressmen from both parties, who were too trusting initially, are
beginning to understand. The one enduring lesson that conservatives
used to teach effectively is that government that is not checked,
balanced, and watched like a hawk can gradually become oppressive.
And now, it's happened again.
The latest abuse of civil rights and the Constitution began with the
first round of captures of Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and
Pakistan in the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks.
Some of these terrorists were caught in possession of their cellular
telephones and laptop computers. Naturally, it occurred to the US
agents involved to see where these cellphones and hard drives led --
a perfectly understandable notion.
And then, as night follows day, it all got out of hand, morphing
into a system of snooping that can only be justified by
authoritarian theories of executive supremacy, complete with legal
justifications for a super-secret program that are themselves
The clue that even the government recognizes it is doing wrong lies
in the almost laughable inability of top officials to discuss all
this without resort to the tortured euphemism that authoritarians
always rely on.
President Bush's truculent response on Saturday to the surveillance
program's belated unmasking by The New York Times -- which held up
its story for a year for reasons that remain largely undisclosed --
included the claim that it was designed ''to intercept the
international communications of people with known links to Al Qaeda
and related terrorist organizations."
As always, the problem arises from the government's claim that it
alone decides what a ''link" and ''related" mean; if thousands of
people have had their ''communications" monitored, it follows that
those links are decidedly tenuous, if not nonexistent.
On Sunday, the designated TV spokeswoman, Condoleezza Rice, invented
''seams", ostensibly exploited by terrorists, between foreign
intelligence and domestic law enforcement capabilities out of whole
cloth. In fact, the government has bugged thousands of people, and
it remains to be seen just how careful the targeting actually was.
One powerful piece of evidence that it got out of hand is the fact
that surveillance has been government-wide in the last few years.
American groups involved in nothing more than traditional protest
and activism have been infiltrated and followed, by the FBI
red-flagged by military intelligence agencies. There is a culture of
surveillance now, not a few carefully limited operations against
severe and immediate threats.
To those who are continually surprised that government behaves in
this manner, it helps to remember that we have been down this road
before. It is not as if international terrorism is the only modern
threat the US has had to confront. There used to be a country called
the Soviet Union, armed with thousands of nuclear weapons and
motivated by a particularly devious kind of expansionism. During
Vietnam, the war was so controversial that at any given moment, a
large chunk of the country was involved in trying to stop it --
legally. In both cases, these supposedly dire threats to national
security gave birth to a large bureaucracy of oppression whose
exposure during Watergate led to what we all thought were lasting
Even before Watergate exploded, there were two important Supreme
Court decisions that appeared to define the limits of government
power and (in the late 1970s) one important statute that appeared to
close an obvious loophole.
In 1967, much closer to the dawn of the electronic age, the
principle was established that evidence from wiretaps should be
discarded from legal proceedings unless it was produced under the
authority of a court-issued warrant based on a finding of probable
cause that a crime had been committed.
Obviously, that didn't cover purely intelligence-related fruits from
electronic snooping, so five years later a unanimous court ruled
that the wiretapping of alleged domestic subversives without a
warrant was unconstitutional.
That left an obvious loophole with regard to the agents of other
countries, and Congress presumably filled it in 1978 by enacting the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This statute established a
secret court here that had to approve government applications for
surveillance, a court that quickly established procedures for very
rapid approvals in emergency situations.
You would think that had established an understandable, fair and
efficient mechanism, but here we go again with another government
for whom any procedure, any check or balance, is too cumbersome. You
wonder why Bush claims he needs the so-called Patriot Act at all.
Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is email@example.com
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
(In accordance with Title 17
U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to
those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the
included information for research and educational purposes.
Information Clearing House has no affiliation whatsoever with the
originator of this article nor is Information Clearing House
endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)