17 May 2006: Americans & Privacy

Americans shouldn’t sacrifice privacy

Dateline: May 17, 1984.

The latest blow to privacy and personal liberty is the revelation Big Brother has been snooping through Americans’ phone records. President Bush says he isn’t trolling or mining for information, but that’s exactly what he is doing. By handing over confidential phone logs to Big Brother George without a blink of an eye, Baby Bell giants AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth apparently thought nothing about violating both their customers’ Fourth Amendment rights and their contractual agreements guaranteeing privacy of their confidential information. For the record, Qwest is my carrier, so in my book Joe Nacchio has gone from goat to hero overnight.

The Fourth Amendment reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

It seems if you use a cell phone, it is “probable” you are an Al Qaeda sympathizer. Therefore, it is not “unreasonable” for your “effects” to be searched—the part about the requisite warrant, a mere technicality. The full-court press is on to defend this latest intrusion into our private lives. Conservatives writers David Brooks and George Will along with Newt Gingrich played softball with hosts George Stephanopoulus and Tim Russert Sunday morning to declare the actions legal. Senators Chuck Hagel (R-Neb) and Joe Biden (D-Del) weren’t so sure. During the 2004 campaign, Bush stated flat out he always obtained a court order before snooping on American citizens. In 2005, he backtracked arguing the exception of international calls: “If Al Qaeda is calling you, I want to know why.” In 2006, the news is surveillance on American citizens has been all along far more than he let on. In short, Bush has been lying to us on an issue that demands absolute candor and straightforward talk.

Conservatism, as I noted in my last piece, has changed considerably since the days of Barry Goldwater, who argued your private life is none of the government’s business. Post-Goldwater conservatives argue that if you have done nothing “wrong,” then you have nothing to hide or fear. Hypocrisy is the measure though, as witnessed by their closet skeletons: Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, former Majority Leader Tom Delay, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Newt Gingrich, and Karl Rove heading the list.

Hypocrisy along with legal and constitutional niceties aside, the question comes down to “Who do you trust with your private information: government spooks overall and George W. Bush in particular?” Even staunch civil libertarians understand that there is a balance between freedom and safety, particularly in context of 21st century technology. The authorities have a daunting task to ascertain when the next terrorist attack is coming, but Bush’s track record—before and after September 11—hardly instills confidence in his team. The dialogue about finding the balance between the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects” and the reasonable efforts to insure public safety can be conducted by leaders whose integrity is unquestionable by all sides.

The Bush-Cheney cabal no longer has that credibility, having squandered its reservoir of political capital post-September 11 on the asinine invasion of Iraq and other political gambits. On the one hand, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are not to be trusted; on the other, we’re stuck with them for the next 32 months. Ronald Reagan’s dictum comes to mind: “Trust, but verify.” However, only a congress that takes seriously its role as a check and balance to the executive can do that. This lapdog congress is incapable of doing its constitutional responsibility, long ago having made the conversion from a bull to a steer.

The drip-drop revelations about government snooping leads to the question, “What’s next?” It’s turning into a suspense thriller, only too real to life. The primary threat to America is not from without, but from within. A strong, free, democratic America will never fall. With that backdrop, one hopes Pogo’s line “We have met the enemy, and he is us” is not prophetic.

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