Who's Watching Whom?

Who’s Watching the Watcher?

TJ Western May, 2006

So, you think the expanded telephone surveillance doesn’t affect you? You believe that the government won’t abuse its position and will only use its unsupervised wiretap and intelligence gathering to combat terrorism. You believe extraordinary measures of this kind are necessary to protect America. Besides, even if the government abused its position of trust it would only be directed at others who, you may believe, deserve the extra scrutiny like peace activists or nosey journalists.

 Allow me to show you how the current activity could ensnare you even though you’re not a terrorist, journalist or even an activist.

 Allow this scenario: 
You’re a very active volunteer for your church. You make frequent calls to the same telephone number at the church as you coordinate fundraising efforts, the talent show, a special holiday service, and the rummage sale.

 Unbeknownst to you and your minister, another congregant is an active member of a white supremist group with cursory ties to an organization to which Timothy McVeigh (1), the Oklahoma City terrorist bomber, was possibly associated with. Using the recently revealed program of receiving records of all phone calls made and received through some of the nation’s telecom companies, U.S. agents identify your church number with phone traffic to a telephone number associated with the supremist’s group. The congregant with the radical ties has made many calls from the church to his extremist colleagues. 

Upon further investigation authorities see that your home number has frequent calls to and from that same church phone number. Based on that information and without the need to demonstrate probable cause to a judge, the agents monitor your home phone activity. They are also aware that you use your home telephone line for Internet access so they monitor your use of the Internet. 

Now the reality of the surveillance program starts to become more real for you because you realize that some unknown bureaucrat makes the determination as to whether your activity is suspect. They also monitor and record your private conversations and Internet traffic.

 You are now more concerned because what you do in the privacy of your own home becomes the business of a stranger who observes your activity and who may at least be amused by your conduct or at worst, suspect you of some nefarious activity. Let’s say that same agent doesn’t think your activity comes under the scope of his investigation but feels like your actions might be of interest to another agency. Does he pass it along to the IRS, the Attorney General or the local authorities? Who knows without the scrutiny of a judge? 

You consider those Internet sites that you visit as your personal affair. As a citizen of the United States and as an adult you have the right to free, unfettered access to whatever medium you choose. You would rather, however, not have your personal preferences in Internet sites be revealed to your loved ones or people you work with. Maybe you have done some searches on tax evasion or visited adult sites, only out of curiosity of course.  Maybe you researched legal questions, some of which had words in the search parameters that flag you like, Iraq, bomb, tax law, free speech, democracy and what else?  You might question whether your curiosity or free speech rights warrants such intrusion.

 There it is—warrants. The purpose of court oversight in issuing warrants (permission) to eavesdrop on American citizens is to guarantee that the government has reasonable cause to monitor your conversations and private communications and that they prove that need to a party outside of the influence of the agency involved.

If the government could demonstrate to a secret judge, who is an expert in national security, that they have reasonable cause to observe your private communication, then so be it for the safety and security of America. That is the way it has been done legally in the past.

 The President and the executive branch has pushed the envelope and violated the law by circumventing that secret court and the law. They justify it by saying that Congress authorized such actions under the Patriot Act. But the chorus of congressional voices of those who passed the Patriot Act deny that was the intent or scope of the legislation.

 My views on this issue may seem extreme but take just a minute to think about how it works. How is the technology applied? Think about human nature. Do you trust powerful individuals to act in your best interest when given absolute power? How would you act if you had the power to explore peoples’ communication without oversight?

 How about the individual who doesn’t have personal power but who has been given these tools of empowerment? Will he or she abuse it?

 Isn’t it better to follow the constitution’s mandate for the separation of powers and require that the executive branch of government (the President) be subject to oversight by Congress and the Courts? Wouldn’t you feel safer if those balances were in place?

 Many would acknowledge that the most effective law enforcement and security could be attained without the impediment of the Constitution, rule of law and free speech. Unshackle the hands of the police and intelligence services and they would be far more effective at accomplishing their goals. That describes a police state. Does that serve your best interests for an open society that allows you to be a free American or would you rather have the illusion of safety without the benefit of democracy?   

Lots of questions without clear answers. As a society and culture we have to find the right mix for national security and security of the nation. National security assured by comprehensive intelligence work and civil cooperation; security of the nation achieved by diligent oversight of the three branches of government and constitutional integrity. 

The common ground is the Constitution. Cherish it, adhere to it, and hold it up as the standard of a successful democracy and republic.

TJ Western
(1) McVeigh
(2) Secret Traveler Profiles 12/2/06

 ©TJ Western 2010                                    facebook: tjwestern