Column, 645 words

Uncle Sam’s Vast Dragnet

Donald Kaul

In 1929, Secretary of State Henry Stimson dismantled the department charged with breaking codes and learning other nations’ secrets. Asked why, he said:

“Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail.” Some sources quote him less elegantly as saying “each other’s mail,” but you get the gist. And boy, have we ever come a long way.

We still pay lip service to our “right to privacy,” but in reality we don’t have one. When you make a phone call, send email, buy something online, or arrange for an automatic withdrawal from your bank, you open up your life to people who would seek to mine it for their own purposes, good and evil.

The Naked Dragnet Emperor, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

The Naked Dragnet Emperor, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Privacy? That’s so 20th century.

The latest assault on our private lives was revealed the other day when an employee of a private contractor revealed that the National Security Agency is clocking all our calls and emails — where they’re coming from, where they’re going. The authorities say widespread snooping is a vital tool in our never-ending fight against terrorism.

This dragnet has some people deeply upset. Others, not so much. It clearly falls short of the Orwellian nightmare of actual eavesdropping — so they tell us — but that dystopian nightmare is only a click away.

It’s time to worry.

The young man who gave away the game said he did it out of patriotism. “The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong,” said Edward Snowden.

President Barack Obama said he welcomed the debate. Then he sent his agents out hunting for Snowden, perhaps to give him the Medal of Freedom. Not.

The situation is a real curveball for conservatives. They hate Obama and live to criticize him. But they also love national security above life itself and would never stand in its way, no matter what. They think Snowden is a traitor and should be hanged (if not dismembered).

Liberals are also in a delicate spot. They’re very suspicious of the gigantic national security apparatus we’ve built and don’t like the idea of the government being able to snoop on their private conversations. Progressives wanted Obama to put an end to that sort of thing, not expand it.

As a result, many liberals consider Snowden a hero, like Daniel Ellsberg, the fellow who spirited the Pentagon Papers to the newspapers that published them.

Ellsberg himself has said Snowden’s leak was even more important than his own. He also likened the vast surveillance operations to the extremes seen in East Germany, declaring “the so-called intelligence community has become the United Stasi of America.”

I feel very strongly both ways.

On the one hand, I think the Constitution does grant us a right to privacy. The document may not do so explicitly, but this right is embedded in the right to free speech, freedom of assembly, religious freedom, and the freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. We have a right to be left alone unless the government can give us a very good reason to the contrary.

On the other hand, I have no desire to get blown up when I go to my neighborhood coffee shop. I’m willing to give the government a good deal of leeway to prevent that.

It’s been nearly 12 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We haven’t had a truly major event like it since and that’s probably not an accident. I think our security forces are doing something right.

All presidents face this balancing act between freedom and security. Pretty much all of them, regardless of ideology, come down on the side of playing it safe.

I guess I’m OK with that, sort of. I just wonder where it’s all going to lead. One minute, the government is tracking your phone calls. The next minute, you’re living in East Germany.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. OtherWords.org

  • is this necessary?

    This has been going on for a LONG time. Shortly after 9/11 our son, who was a Freshman in High School, looked up “Anarchy” on the internet. Not long thereafter, his school was notified with questions asking about him. The speed with which this happened was mind-blowing, so there is, and has been, a continual surveillance, of our private digital correspondence (now there’s a new oxymoron for you!) going on for quite some time. Personally, knowing that everything is now available to anyone with the least bit of computer savvy brings to mind the admonishment found in the Gospels (albeit in the context of the teachings of Jesus) “For there is nothing hidden that will not be made known, nothing spoken in the dark that will not be revealed in the daylight” (my paraphrase). No longer should an American citizen presume that s/he has a right to privacy. It is sad that the enemy without has now become the enemy within.

  • JaylahP

    Except that I distinctly remember watching at least an hour-long program, I think most probably on PBS, and probably something like “Frontline” about his very thing several years ago. I remember them showing the outside of a building, one of several in this country where all phone calls and e-mails either coming in or going out of this country are routed and checked for key words. Yes, only those containing those key words were scrutinized by humans, but still…….

    So I guess the cartoon is only accurate with the inclusion of PBS if you consider them closing their eyes to the situation only because they didn’t continue to harp on it. They DID report it quite some time ago.

    For those who have read George Orwell’s “1984″ do you suppose that “Big Brother” got that way overnight? Or do you suppose that the “government” got more and more intrusive until it eventually reached that point?

    There’s an old biological true-ism that, if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will attempt to escape. But if you put in in a pot of room temperature water, and then bring that water slowly up to the boil, it will stay there until it’s cooked.

    We are the frogs, and our country has us over a medium-low flame right now.

  • John B.

    Once again, George Orwell called it:

    “The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public
    opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further. With
    the development of television, and the technical advance which made it
    possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument,
    private life came to an end.”

  • socrates2

    Mr. Kaul, you write, “It’s been nearly 12 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We haven’t had a truly major event like it since and that’s probably not an accident. I think our security forces are doing something right.”

    I suggest you re-study your history of terrorism, its etiology and the narrative the typical international terrorist lives by.

    And pray, define “terrorism” in an intellectually honest manner and not as the meme/talking point handed down by wonks on government pay.

    For one, if we define international terrorism as asymmetrical warfare, then we must ask ourselves, why this *war* in the first place? Who instigated it? What goals/objectives do *both* sides desire to achieve?

    Acts of terror by their very spectacular, theatrical nature seek to call attention to the plight of the underdog, of the *colonized* who lack the military wherewithal to meet the occupier in a level playing field/battleground. In a traditional field of battle the underdog would be exterminated within minutes and it would never get its “message” and/or appeal for sympathy out.

    Part of its “message” would be to call attention to the oppressive, exploitative nature of an empire and its impact on the underdog. Another part would be to prove itself “right” by having the empire “react” and have said empire impose its imperialistic, authoritarian bureaucracies on its *own* citizens to protect them from acts of terror (“as in we destroy your freedom in order to save it.”).

    This latter part of the 9/11 mission was “accomplished.” The US operates under a state of siege, secrecy and in the faith-based belief that such paranoid authoritarianism “works” as it has “experienced no further acts of terror!”

    Come again? A spirit of paranoia prevails as official (and profitable) *state policy*. By that measure, the attacks worked. No more actions need be taken. We’ve surrendered our freedoms and privacy (and taxes) in exchange for a self-deluded sense of “security.” *Terror* “triumphed,” if you ask me. We *lost* that battle in the “War on Terror.”

    In addition, we have in fact ceded ground to “terrorism” and have set the tone for further recruits. Promiscuous drone assassinations that slaughter guilty and innocent alike which do nothing more than garner sympathy for martyrs who die under the aegis of “collateral damage.” Such dead innocents have mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, friends, neighbors, tribesmen and co-religionists. That is how blood feuds get started, not to mention sympathetic appeals for revenge.

    It’s a *narrative* as old as the Trojan War, the battle of Thermopylae, and as recent as the Lincoln Brigade. Every drone attack and every abuse carried out by our military *in our name* may as well be one of those WW1 Uncle Sam recruitment “I want you” posters.

    At the moment 6.7 billion people in the world are watching. The resentment, tribal, narrative, and revenge impulses (among others) that evolution embedded in the simian brain will not go away. In fact homicidal, inhumane actions by any military only awaken and jump-start these impulses that merely rest in the depths of the human soul.

    Friend, I beg you, read your history…

  • Chris Herz

    Putin, a former spy himself, said the NSA data mining is useless. The reasons are that a policy maker must know the analyst from whom he gets information, and should know something of the source too, so as to judge how much role opinion plays in his judgements. A very astute comment.
    But by no means let us interfere with the process; it is one of a vast number of equally useless boodoggles bringing bankruptcy and dissolution to the imperial Washington consensus.