Government Surveillance and the Right to Privacy

We will be discussing Edward Snowden and his revelations for some time (I hope).  His observations are worth serious thought. As quoted in the Washington Post by Barton Gellman “Man who leaked NSA secrets steps forward” /2013/06/09  ‘“I believe that at this point in history, the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient State powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents.” The steady expansion of surveillance powers, he wrote, is “such a direct threat to democratic governance that I have risked my life and family for it….” “We managed to survive greater threats in our history . . . than a few disorganized terrorist groups and rogue states without resorting to these sorts of programs,” he wrote. “It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose . . . omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance. . . . That seems to me a greater threat to the institutions of free society than missed intelligence reports, and unworthy of the costs…”  “Analysts (and government in general) aren’t bad guys, and they don’t want to think of themselves as such,” he replied. But he said they labored under a false premise that “if a surveillance program produces information of value, it legitimizes it. . . . In one step, we’ve managed to justify the operation of the Panopticon” — an 18th-century design by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham for comprehensive surveillance of a prison population.”’

It is not generally acceptable for individuals to decide whether it is OK to violate a law we don’t like (though we all do it all the time), but there can be circumstances that are sufficiently serious that our conscience may dictate that we must.  Snowden made that determination and is prepared to accept the consequences. The courts will determine what those are. In my opinion his motives are above question.

I hope, however, as does Snowden, that the public discussion will focus on the issue of the proper balance between government’s desire to protect us from harm and invading our privacy, a favorite tool of totalitarian regimes, rather than on whether Snowden was justified in breaching his confidentiality commitment or not. The very nature of government is that of a slippery slope toward ever larger activities and powers. These risks, of course. were very well-known by our founding fathers who did their best to introduce limits and checks and balances on government power.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, called PRISM “deeply concerning,” stating that: “Unwarranted government surveillance is an intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society. I call on all Web users to demand better legal protection and due process safeguards for the privacy of their online communications, including their right to be informed when someone requests or stores their data. A store of this information about each person is a huge liability: Whom would you trust to decide when to access it, or even to keep it secure?”

Contrary to his promises, President Obama has not reversed the dangerous excesses of the eternal War on Terror and other political abuses promoted by Bush/Chaney. Examples are the IRS anti-tea party abuses, and the administration’s frightening attack on the press: “The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press.” govt-obtains-wide-ap-phone-records-probe. But these pale compared to Obama’s expansion of our secret, undeclared wars in Somalia and Yemen and elsewhere in the form of assassinations of “bad guys.”

The most deeply disturbing of these was the assassination of Anwar al Awlaki, an American citizen who had lost faith in the intentions behind the American government’s attacks on Muslims around the world. Anwar, an initially moderate Muslim Imam,frequently interviewed by the American press following 9/11, ultimately became sharply critical of U.S. behavior and moved from Falls Church Va. back to his native Yemen to rejoin his parents. U.S. authorities came to believe that his blogs and sermons were influencing others to take violent acts against Americans. President Obama authorized his death without formal charges and without any convincing evidence of crimes other than the exercise of his free speech, which had become embarrassingly critical (and is not yet a crime). Our government claimed that he had become an al Qaeda leader but presented no evidence of any connection at all.

The day Awlaki’s death was announced  (September 30, 2011) syndicated columnist Glenn Greenwald stated: “Remember that there was great controversy that George Bush asserted the power simply to detain American citizens without due process or simply to eavesdrop on their conversation without warrant. Here you have something much more severe. Not eavesdropping on American citizens, not detaining them without due process, but killing them without due process.” Former Bush CIA director Michael Hayden stated: “We needed a court order to eavesdrop on [Awlaki], but we didn’t need a court order to kill him. Isn’t that something?” (Both of these quotes are taken from Jeremy Scahill’s shocking book “Dirty Wars; The World is a Battlefield”)

If you are not alarmed by our President ordering the death of Americans without due process, you will surely be sicken that our secretive special forces killed Awlaki’s 16 year old son Abdulrahman two weeks later. The government has never explained whether his death was another of their many accidents or had been deliberate and if so why. He was also an American, born in Denver Colorado on August 26, 1995 (https://www.facebook.com/abdulrahman.14.10.2011). Soon thereafter Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former White House press secretary, was asked: ‘“It’s an American citizen that is being targeted without due process of law, without trial. And, he’s underage. He’s a minor,” reporter Sierra Adamson told Gibbs. Gibbs shot back: “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.”’ (Dirty Wars)  Gibbs should be publicly whipped (if we did that sort of thing) or at least banished from polite society. How disgusting.

I am proud of the principles of individual dignity and rights upon which my country is based. I am proud of what many of my countrymen have accomplished and contributed to the world. I am tired of being ashamed of many of the self-destructive things my government has increasingly been doing in the misguided name of my security.  Why do you think Muslims in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere wish to attack the United States rather than (or in addition to) fighting each other for one reason or another? Because many of them have been killed or injured by our global campaign of assassinations and/or outright wars, which they see as an American attack on Islam. They are fighting to defend themselves just as we would (or say that we are). We need to leave them alone. They will have no interest in attacking us if we stay out of their homelands.

I am hoping the current revelations of some of our government’s abuses of its powers and our liberties will bring them to an end.  It is, as I have noted so many times before, the nature of government to want to grow in scope and power. As we all know, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. The pendulum of potentially coercive government power has swung too far in the false name of defending our safety against foreign (and now domestic) enemies. I hope that the current revelations will shock us into sending the pendulum back the other way.

Several weeks ago, on Memorial Day, my friend Lou Cordia sent the following from President Reagan’s Memorial Day Proclamation for May 25, 1981 as a reminder of what we properly aspire to:

Over one hundred years ago, Memorial Day was established to commemorate those who died in the defense of our national ideals. Our ideals of freedom, justice, and equal rights for all have been challenged many times since then, and thousands of Americans have given their lives in many parts of the world to secure those same ideals and insure for their children a lasting peace. Their sacrifice demands that we, the living, continue to promote the cause of peace and the ideals for which they so valiantly gave of themselves.

Today, the United States stands as a beacon of liberty and democratic strength before the community of nations. We are resolved to stand firm against those who would destroy the freedoms we cherish. We are determined to achieve an enduring peace — a peace with liberty and with honor. This determination, this resolve, is the highest tribute we can pay to the many who have fallen in the service of our Nation.

Remembering 9/11– Bratislava, Slovakia

As my generation did for many years following the assassination of JFK, we today remember where we were and what we were doing on the day ten years ago that 19 Middle Eastern terrorists hijacked and crashed four American passenger planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in rural Pennsylvania.

On September 11, 2001 I was in Bratislava, Slovakia (the former Czechoslovakia’s eastern half). I had combined an IMF technical assistance visit to Slovakia’s central bank with a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, the free market group established over 50 years earlier by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. I returned to my hotel room around 3:00 pm (9:00 am in New York and Washington, DC) to an email from IMF security announcing that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. I turned on the television and watched in shock and disbelief as a second plane crashed into the other tower. Then a third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and I wondered if this was the beginning or the end of the attacks.

I called my Icelandic friend Hannes Gissurarson, a member of the board of Iceland’s central bank, who was also attending the MPS meetings. “Hannes, you will not believe what has happened. I don’t want to watch this alone. Please come.”  For the next few hours we sat in front of the television emptying the liquor from my refrigerator and then his. We watched in real-time as the two towers collapsed. I remember thinking that they fell so perfectly straight down that it looked like a Hollywood stunt. I was hoping disparately that it was. We did not see any of the people who jumped or fell to their deaths from the towers, which were not visible or shown at that time (thank God).

Michael Novak, a fellow MPS member, called a meeting to meditate together on these events. Michael has a comforting way of talking about difficult things and the gathering was helpful. Many other friends were there, including Richard Rahn and Marian Tupy.

Later in the evening Hannes and I decided to take a walk. As we walked through the lobby of our hotel, the hotel clerks expressed their heart-felt sympathy. We walked the seven or eight blocks to the American Embassy where we saw people placing flowers and small American flags outside of the Embassy. I was very touched by these displays of sympathy and friendship but felt dazed.

Three days later I was finally able to get a flight home, which was a few blocks from the Pentagon. The hole in western side of the five sided building made by American Airlines flight 77 seemed small considering that it had been made by a very large Boeing 757. It  dramatized just how huge the Pentagon is. Barbara Olson, the wife of the United States Solicitor General at the time (and currently a defender of Marriage Equality in the California appeal of Proposition 8), was one of the 64 people on that plane who died when it crashed into the Pentagon killing an additional 125 people in the building.

The positive side of this tragedy was the outpouring of sympathy and support around the word and the strengthened unity among all Americans. As Ronald Reagan had put it: America is a beacon on a hill. We have created a government that is meant to service us, not the other way around. We have established a society in which very diverse people with very diverse personal beliefs and ambitions live peacefully together (most of the time) because our constitution and our beliefs provide considerable space for such diversity. We require that others respect our property and our space in turn for which we respect theirs. To a large extent we can prosper on the basis of our efforts and the extent to which they satisfy the needs and wants of others in the market place.

The world respected and envied American society. The idea, circulated by a few Neanderthals, that Al Qaeda attacked us because they resented our freedoms, was a silly lie. They resented our troops on their soil (Saudi Arabia) and our intrusions into their countries and affairs. If our leaders had understood that correctly, and fashioned policies accordingly, perhaps we would have retained the respect of the rest of the world over the next ten years after 9/11.

Instead, we have lost thousands of American lives and Afghanistan and Iraq have lost  multiples of that. We have weakened our economic strength and thus our military strength by squandering several trillion dollars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. We have traded off more of our liberties and way of life in the name of security (the infamous “War on Terror”) than we should have. We have lost the respect and support of much of the world.

A poll taken in the U.S. near the end of August found that: “Six in ten Americans believe that the U.S. weakened its economy by overspending in its responses to the 9/11 attacks. In particular, respondents felt this was especially true of the U.S. mission in Iraq. Two out of three Americans perceive that over the decade since 9/11, U.S. power and influence in the world has declined. This view is highly correlated with the belief that the U.S. overspent in its post-9/11 response efforts — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The “Patriot Act” and the “Department of Homeland Security” are names that could have been proposed by “Big Brother” in Orwell’s 1984. How could our government have chosen such names and more importantly how could we have let it. The constant announcements at airports to be on the alert—the flashing signs along the main streets of Washington, DC to report any suspicious activities to XXXXX, are right out of 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Former Vice President Cheney writes without embarrassment that we were right to torture terrorists. I get extremely uncomfortable sitting in the same room with Paul Wolfowitz at AEI. Hopefully I would get up and leave if John Bolton walked in. What has happened to us?

Big Brother/Big Government, however well-meaning, are dangerous to what made us great. They create self-interests that work night and day to direct government spending and policies to their benefit rather than to the nations benefit. That is just how governments work and why our founding fathers were so concerned to limit its scope as much as possible. Governments work best to serve the broad social (national) interest when they provide impartial enforcement of private agreements (courts) and property rights (police and army) and the basic infrastructure of commerce (roads, water, sewage disposal).

Though with every nibble and further intrusion into what was once the private sector Leviathan grows stronger and more dangerous, we don’t have to lose the principles that made us great and made us the envy of the world. We can again be the beacon on the hill that cares about each and every person and thus mankind and sets an example of respect for our fellow-man that others will want to emulate.

But we cannot each have everything in the social sphere exactly the way we each want it. We must live together in cooperation in the pubic sphere. This requires compromises whenever the government is involved (there are not enough desert islands for each of us to each have everything our own way). Thus the broadly accepted need to eliminate our government’s deficit in the future and bring its cumulative debt down to lower levels relative to our economic output over the coming decade or two can only be achieved if each side compromises a few things in order to reach a common agreement on how to do it (what to cut and what taxes to adjust). The President’s largely ignored Debt Commission set out a good basis for such compromises last year. I hope that we can come together again to find an agreement and again become a nation we can be proud of and that is again respected by our neighbors around the world.