Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Domestic spying...

The Pentagon is asking the legislature if it can start to "covertly" gather intelligence on US citizens.
As someone involved in this area I find this disturbing...
The argument is that by covertly 'spying' on American citizens (mostly in Muslim communities), the DoD and intelligence agencies will be able to "assess their suitability as sources" for information related to our operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and where ever we are engaged with violent Islamic fundamentalists.
Sounds good on the surface. However, I find this disturbing for a couple reasons.
First, our system of government is based on the precept that we are all free to live our lives; to express our beliefs & opinions and to act (as long as those actions do not violate the law) without government interference. This precept was best codified by a former US Attorney General: Attorney General, Harlan Fiske Stone. He definitively defined the charter of the Dept of Justice. To paraphrase: 
The Dept is not interested in the opinions or beliefs of US citizens. Our jurisdiction only extends to actions... and only when those actions violate the law.
Out system of government relies on its citizens expression of their opinions...  and our citizens must be able to express those opinions without fear that they will bring some type of retribution. If we start treating a group of people with one set of beliefs differently, we open the door to government persecution based on beliefs -- and we've seen it before (McCarthyism). 
Which leads me to my second concern: our government has historically abused this power. It was only 40 years ago that individuals like Martin Luther King and other civic leaders were investigated by the FBI for "Un-American activities" ... a term never really defined. This 'criteria' was used to start investigations of thousands of US Citizens who's only 'crime' was to be opposed to a particular government policy. Check out some of these abuses by the government which occured in the '56-'71 time frame.
I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about this proposal: but on the surface, it stinks. The job of our military and intelligence infrastructure is to protect us from our enemies... But in doing so we cannot give up the essential freedoms that define who we are.

When Stone appointed J. Edgar Hoover as Acting Director of the Bureau of Investigation, he instructed Hoover to adhere to this standard:

The activities of the Bureau are to be limited strictly to investigations of violations of law, under my direction or under the direction of an Assistant Attorney General regularly conducting the work of the Department of Justice.

Nevertheless, beginning in the mid-thirties, at White House direction, the FBI reentered the realm of collecting intelligence about ideas and associations.

Do we really want to start down that path again?


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