The War on Privacy
Rumsfeld warns that the enemy can succeed in changing our way of
life. It already has.
"There was, of course, no way of
knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How
often, or on what system the Thought Police plugged in on any
individual wire was guesswork. . . . But at any rate they would
plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did
live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that
every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness,
every movement scrutinized. "George Orwel
By Nat Hentoff
Voice" -- --One morning, in his Supreme Court chambers, Justice William
Brennan was giving me a lesson on the American Revolution. "A
main precipitating cause of our revolution," he said, "was the
general search warrant that British customs officers
wrote—without going to any court—to break into the American
colonists' homes and offices, looking for contraband."
Everything, including the colonists, was turned upside down.
He added that news of these recurrent assaults on privacy were
spread through the colonies by the Committees of Correspondence
that Sam Adams and others organized, inflaming the outraged
Now, the Congressional Democratic leadership has finally found
an issue to focus on—the vanishing of Americans' privacy, as
happened before the American Revolution, but currently on a
scale undreamed of by Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and the other
patriots in the Committees of Correspondence.
The rising present anger around the country, across party lines,
is reflected in a February 3 Zogby Interactive poll that "finds
Americans largely unwilling to surrender civil liberties—even if
it is to prevent terrorists from carrying out attacks. . . .
Even routine security measures, like random searches of bags,
purses, and other packages, were opposed by half (50 percent) of
respondents in the survey. . . . Just 28 percent are willing to
allow their telephone conversations to be monitored."
On the other hand, nearly half (45 percent) favored at least "a
great deal" of government secrecy in the war on terror. But the
public's awareness that the United States has increasingly
become a nation under surveillance is indicated by resistance
not only to random searches and tapping into our telephone
conversations. Zogby says: This is a "public obsessed with civil
Well, not obsessed yet, but growingly apprehensive.
In 2001, for example, 82 percent of those surveyed by Zogby
favored government video surveillance of street corners,
neighborhoods, and other public places. By 2006, this approval
has dropped to 70 percent, still a formidable figure. But the
decline is part of an across-the-board change in public
willingness to give up civil liberties from 2001 to the present
awakening to the vanishing of the "reasonable expectation of
privacy" that used to be in our rule of law.
James Madison, the principal architect of the Bill of Rights,
warned: "It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment in
our liberties." Because of the continually expanding
surveillance technology available to the government, no
administration in our history has been engaged in more pervasive
"experiments" on our liberties than Bush's regime. And even more
penetrating means of surveillance will be available to future
presidents who claim that their "inherent powers" in a war on
terrorism allow them to ignore laws and the other branches of
government. The present and future dangers to Americans'
individual liberties have been underscored in a revealing speech
by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on February 2 at the
National Press Club in Washington. (The ramifications of this
analysis of our future are deeper than he may have intended.)
Rumsfeld said flatly that this war to keep us secure from
worldwide, dedicated lethal terrorists can last for decades! At
last, this crucial difference from all the other wars in which
we have been involved is sinking into the American
In their February 3 Washington Post coverage of the Rumsfeld
address, Josh White and Ann Scott Tyson valuably added this
context: "Iraq and Afghanistan are the 'early battles' in the
campaign against Islamic extremists and terrorists, who are
profoundly more dangerous than in the past because of
technological advances that allow them to operate globally, said
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon K. England in an address on
Wednesday [February 1]."
At the core of Rumsfeld's own remarks is this admission:
"Compelled by a militant ideology that celebrates murder and
suicide with no territory to defend, with little to lose, they
will either succeed in changing our way of life, or we will
succeed in changing theirs." (Emphasis added.)
But our enemies are changing our way of life, beginning with the
2001 Patriot Act that, among other invasions, expanded the FBI's
ability to use National Security Letters—without going to
judges—to collect personal information about us. This marked the
return of the "general search warrant" of our colonial past.
Because the New York Times exposed how the National Security
Agency's spying is further changing our way of life, the
administration is intent on punishing the Times—with the support
of Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In an afterword to George Orwell's 1984, Eric Fromm emphasized:
"Orwell . . . is not a prophet of disaster. He wants to warn and
awaken us. He still hopes— but . . . his hope is a desperate
one. . . . Books like Orwell's are powerful warnings, and it
would be most unfortunate if the reader smugly interpreted 1984
as another description of Stalinist barbarism, and if he does
not see that it means us, too."
Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe, in an interview
with the New York Times' Bob Herbert, tells how Orwell is indeed
speaking to us: "The more people grow accustomed to a listening
environment in which 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." (Emphasis added.)
Will the Democrats become a truly serious opposition party
before privacy disappears entirely?
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