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Keith/My Turn: A matter of trust

August 17, 2013

August 17, 2013

I have appreciated Tim Blagg’s knowledge of history, so I was particularly surprised at his willingness to let the National Security Agency vacuum (Hoover?) the Internet.

The history of government surveillance is not reassuring.

No matter what white papers authorized the NSA’s surveillance program, it is clearly unconstitutional. The revolutionary part of the American Revolution was the idea that our laws would be legal only when we agreed to live by them. Not only does the NSA’s unlimited access to the Internet violate the clause prohibiting unlawful search and seizure, its secrecy undermines the bedrock premise of our government — that its authority lies in our consent. We cannot agree to what we do not know.

But how can surveillance hurt those who have nothing to hide? In general terms, it can hurt by unbalancing power. Our government was created by realists who intentionally pitted self-interests against each other to prevent any person or group from concentrating power. Like a game of rock, paper, scissors, our three branches of government can metaphorically crush, cover or cut each other.

Now the NSA has access to virtually everything on the Internet, even the ability to take control of unprotected computers. That power makes it effectively a fourth branch of our government, but one with no structural check or balance. Now we have rock, paper, scissors — and acid. The information to which the NSA has access could help it become a shadow government.

Specifically how? History tells us. Former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover notoriously used information gathered by the FBI to blackmail and coerce politicians and activists. When Hoover got damaging information about congressmen or senators, he would send agents to assure them of the discretion of the bureau — which put the politicians on notice that the discretion could be revoked. So, acid melts congressional scissors. Similarly, he let President Kennedy know not only that the FBI had proof of his liaisons with Judith Campbell Exner, but that she was also involved with a known gangster. Acid dissolves the executive rock. Presumably judges are human, too, and secrecy largely bypasses the courts anyway — pffft goes judiciary paper.

Public figures don’t have to break the law to be damaged by information that shakes their public image. Hoover attempted to stop the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with threats of exposing illicit affairs. King preempted Hoover by admitting to the adultery, but how many did back down?

Virtually everybody has something they would prefer others not know. It is still a felony to illicitly open an envelope with a postal stamp largely because it used to be recognized as essential to commerce that business secrets remain secret. Some people would prefer to keep medical or psychiatric treatments private. Others worry about a gun registry. Has your tax reporting always been perfect? Are there people you love who have something to hide? People you could be associated with? And reporters need to protect sources.

I could go on, but the NSA will be assumed to know more than the rest of us anyway — so insiders could simply make things up. The target wouldn’t actually have had to do anything wrong, those in a position to know could just say he or she did. Potentially they could alter records in the target’s own computer.

Obviously our conversations, transactions, emails, or even snippy guest columns are dreck the current NSA only wants to get rid of. But the foibles of politicians and other influential people could, eventually, become interesting. As Vladimir Putin is showing in Russia, you don’t have to get everybody to put a chill in the air.

The issue is trust. Imagine never being sure that a politician’s vote or a judge’s ruling was not influenced by some whispered threat of disclosure. Reporters, businessmen and bureaucrats are equally susceptible. Who, for instance, will have the nerve to try to limit the NSA’s power? Hoover secretly undercut detractors with blackmail, but publicly he could call them naive about still-secret dangers. Democracy requires some faith in each other, its strength lies in cooperation. Concentrating information in one black box undermines that faith and cooperation. It separates insiders from outsiders and wastes our collective strength. Our nation fought WWII to preserve democracy. Is the current threat greater?

Curtailing surveillance may or may not diminish our capacity to prevent terrorist attacks. But terrorist attacks are not the only danger — so is handing a few anonymous people the keys to the country. The use and misuse of information has historically been the foundation of oppressive governments. If we let the NSA know more than anyone else — no matter how honorable or effective the current insiders may be — sooner or later the people with access to that information will run the country and our democratic experiment will have failed.

David Gilbert Keith is an independent researcher who lives in Deerfield.

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