Wiretapping Scandals

Yes, it is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy

By REETA SINHA

What was first described by the U.S. president as “limited” wiretapping of individuals with known links to terrorist organizations now, it appears, reaches far and wide. International communications via email and phone have been scooped up by the U.S. National Security Agency for the past four years. The objective? To find clues that may lead to suspicious activities. The problem? It was done without a warrant, violating the U.S. constitution and an explicit federal law against wiretapping. The president denies all of the above, saying the constitution and Congress’s authorization to use force in Afghanistan provided him the authority.

Do those objecting to the administration’s disregard for civil liberties feel government should not pursue enemies of the state? Absolutely not. Most citizens want and expect the government to identify and thwart all threats. Furthermore, terrorist tactics that use cell phones and the internet as weapons call for more savvy means to gather and analyze intelligence. But circumventing the constitution, Congress, and federal law can be counter-productive. Verdicts may be overturned if the evidence was illegally obtained. What if, despite data-mining email or phone conversations on the off-chance a pattern emerges, real threats are not detected? Hardly implausible, given that recent intelligence-gathering efforts of U.S. agencies have not been the most reliable. (Remember WMD and unconnected dots?) The efficacy of widespread domestic spying as a method to prevent terrorist attacks is unknown as well.

Domestic spying is, however, a good way to keep tabs on the opposition. Nixon did it and so did the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Now, since the current wiretapping project was revealed, reports emerge that groups such as Greenpeace and antiwar activists have been spied upon. The “imperial presidency” vanity is the culprit: little Congressional oversight, no respect for federal statutes such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and definitely no questions asked … or else. Within days of the wiretap story in the press, an investigation to identify who leaked details of the program was launched, but it was months before a similar probe began to identify who revealed a CIA agent’s identity, also a matter of national security. Finally, one has to wonder if domestic spying is a critical weapon in the “war on terror” when the administration received a failing grade from the 9/11 Commission on implementing the panel’s homeland security recommendations.

As calls for hearings over the domestic spying project grow, the administration is calculating how much Americans will put up with in the name of homeland security. What the administration seems to have forgotten is that rarely have Americans, or citizens anywhere, tolerated the abuse of power by leaders. Whether it was Watergate or Emergency, eventually such leaders did pay the price.

Reeta Sinha wrote this commentary from Las Vegas, Nev.

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No, it depends on why and how it is being done

By RAJEEV SRINIVASAN

Is internal espionage appropriate? A Chanakyan perspective would suggest that it is, and a utilitarian ethic—for the greatest good of the greatest number—would agree. Ashoka the Great had his spies, in fact plenty of them. In the Ramayana, it is spies who inform Rama of gossip about Sita.

But even from a deontological ethical perspective—that is, from the perspective of the most powerless person who is affected by this action—it is hard to be dogmatic.

As an advocate of the underdog and the subaltern, I normally use the point of view of the least privileged. In the case of terrorism, who is the subaltern? It is the collateral damage, the innocent bystander, the professor at the Indian Institute of Science who was shot down in cold blood, those killed while doing their Deepavali shopping in Delhi.

What do you say to a victim of the bombings, a child, who asks when his amputated arms will grow back again?

If intelligence could have prevented that one child’s suffering, I would say yes to all the most intrusive wiretapping in the world.

When there is random terrorism against innocent civilians, when anti-national activity is endemic, it is appropriate to surrender a small part of our personal freedom so that we are all relatively safe. This is like obeying traffic rules and the seat-belt law and the helmet law.

But it’s a different kettle of fish when the objective is to perpetuate the rule of a particular individual or a particular party. This is what Watergate was all about, and this is what the wiretapping in India is all about: the current rulers want to ensure that they will never be dislodged. One man, one vote, one time, the usual abomination of democracy in totalitarian societies.

That fine distinction between dynastic and national interests is unknown: 17th century French monarch Louis XIV’s “L’État, c’est moi (I am the State!)” resonates among the rulers. Thus self-aggrandizement drives spying, while national-security imperatives are ignored and attention diverted from real issues like Volckergate.

As abhorrent as domestic espionage might be in principle, in practice what the Americans are doing is arguably more fruitful than what the Indian ruling clique is doing. At least Bush can show that there have been no acts of terrorism since 9/11. What about India with monthly terrorist violence?

The Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) has been diverted from counter-espionage against enemies of the nation, and is now the handmaiden of an unscrupulous government. Breaking news is that an IB man who masterminded the deed has quietly been secreted abroad. This is surely the worst of all possible worlds, a fascism that ignores national security.

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Mangalore, India.



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