The War on Privacy


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 Orwell

>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 Americans.

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 liberties.”

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 consciousness.

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?