A thought experiment, to get beyond the partisan blinders of the current National Security Agency scandal: close your eyes and pretend that it is 1973, and you just learned the government is spending two billion dollars to build a data-storage facility for the NSA in the Utah desert. The government has been secretly data-mining your phone records and your credit card statements. The president assures you that it’s not a problem, and reaffirms that no one is listening in on your private phone conversations. Besides, this is all being done in the interest of national security. The president who is telling you this is Richard M. Nixon, and the Watergate scandal is in full bloom.
Do you believe him?
You do if you were one of those ultra-partisan Republicans who thought Nixon should hang in there and fight impeachment. But if you had an ounce of objectivity, you judged Nixon to be a liar.
The situation today with Barack Obama is strikingly similar yet more frightening, because when Nixon was trying to lie his way out of the Watergate scandal by cloaking it in national security, the press was doing its job and relentlessly challenging him.
Today, the press has shamelessly been a propaganda arm of the Obama administration. Had any other administration stood down while four Americans fought for their lives and our honor, it would have been excoriated by the media. If Richard M. Nixon’s whereabouts could not be accounted for during a security emergency — for six hours — the press would have been zealous in finding out where he was.
If the media’s response to Nixon’s scandals had been similar to their current response to Obama’s scandals, Watergate would have ended as an insignificant burglary undertaken by rogue agents of the Committee to Reelect the President.
The CIA, from 1955-1974, had an operation titled HT-Lingual in the main New York post office. Using the technology of the time — steamy tea kettles — it went about opening the mail going to and coming from the then-Soviet Union. Ironically, one of the letters opened was written by Richard M. Nixon. The operation violated the Fourth Amendment and the 1947 National Security Act, which restricted the CIA’s operations to foreign intelligence.
What stops us from being victims of the oppression of fanatics in government who trample the law in the pursuit of our security are the rule of law and the willingness of the courageous few to blow the whistle on them. Thomas Andrews Drake, an employee of the NSA, revealed that the Bush administration was secretly intercepting phone conversations without FISA warrants. Not only did the Bush administration seek to prosecute Drake to the fullest extent of the law, so too did the Obama administration under the 1917 Espionage Act. Eventually, Drake was able to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and to do community service. In 2010, a federal judge in San Francisco struck down the Bush administration’s warrantless searches as unconstitutional.
All democratic states find that when they are under siege, they need to balance freedom and order, privacy and security. Of course, the balance tips toward order and security in those situations. Yet it is highly questionable whether giving up liberty has ever really enhanced security.
The CIA’s nearly twenty-year tea kettle project in the New York post office ferreted out not one act of espionage, and exposed not one traitor.
The FBI’s COINTELPRO operations violated the rights of Americans to organize, assemble, and fully use their constitutional liberties. It disrupted the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the environmental movement. There is no evidence to prove we were more secure as a result of the government’s violation of basic liberties.
Twenty-two years ago, I sat in an Irish pub in Washington, D.C., and interviewed Gerard Conlon for a piece I was writing on terrorism and the media in the UK. Conlon is one of the Guildford Four: four young people, living in a squat, who were railroaded for a series of Provisional IRA pub bombings in Guildford. (Conlon’s story was made famous by the fictionalized account depicted in the film In the Name of the Father.)
Conlon, along with three others, spent fifteen years of his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. One of the reasons the authorities were able to extract false confessions from the four vagrant young people is that civil liberties in Britain had been highly compromised when “the troubles” of Northern Ireland crossed the Irish Sea and exploded on the Isle of Britain in the form of pub bombings. The carnage those bombings produced and the attendant mass fear led to the passage, without debate, of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, legislation so at variance with the norms of democracy that even its sponsors called it draconian.
Conlon says that this legislation permitted the authorities to hold suspects for weeks without charge. Previously the authorities could only hold someone for forty-eight hours. For forty-eight hours he might have been able to withstand the coercion, intimidation, and torture he experienced at the hands of the authorities — but not for weeks. Conlon’s relatives, the Maguire Seven, were also convicted of aiding him and his fellow squatters with the bombings.
All were subsequently exonerated, and years later Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for these convictions.
We trust government to protect us, but in democratic societies we trust government to do so within the rule of law and according to the basic ethos of liberal democracy. The rule of law is what protects us from fanatics that will violate our civil liberties and put innocent people in jail. The implementation of law is like the implementation of a contract: it can seldom be better than the trust earned by the people who agree to it, just as the social compact between the people and their government needs to be based on trust.
But who aside from the most blinded partisan can trust this administration?
It repeatedly lied to us about Benghazi. It lied to us about the origins of the IRS scandal. Attorney General Eric Holder told a group of newspaper editors that he never intended to try journalist James Rosen as a co-conspirator under the 1917 Espionage Act, yet that is precisely what he told a judge in order to get a warrant to intercept Rosen’s and his parents’ phone calls.
Is the data-mining of our social networking legal? At this juncture, it probably doesn’t make a difference — an administration that would manipulate the IRS for partisan purposes and use it to divulge protected information about political adversaries cannot be trusted with data-mining our records. An administration that makes journalism a crime and abandoned four Americans to Islamist terrorists has squandered its legitimacy and the confidence of the governed.
I would no more trust Barack Obama data-mining my records than I would trust Richard Nixon. In fact, if I had to choose, Nixon wins.