PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
June 13, 2006

Keeping Secrets

by Jim Newsom

This most secretive of administrations keeps poking its nose deeper and deeper into the private lives of American citizens. It’s a behavior rich in irony, troubling if not downright frightening. Perhaps even more worrisome is the public’s remarkably lackadaisical response to these governmental intrusions, and our apparent inability to understand the ramifications.

Surely the free world has turned upside down when the federal government, which derives its power from the consent of the governed, runs roughshod over that most fundamental right to be left alone, while cloaking its own deliberations and activities in a thick veil of secrecy. What is going on here? It is completely backwards.

The latest salvo was fired recently when the Justice Department told representatives of the leading internet companies that they may soon be required to keep records of their customers’ web surfing activities for as long as two years. The discussions strongly hinted that if these companies—including America Online, Verizon, Google and Microsoft—didn’t voluntarily comply with this request, legislation would be introduced to compel their cooperation.

While details have been sketchy thus far, several news organizations have reported that the government wants to be able to identify who visits what websites, who we send e-mails to, and what searches we perform. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said such information would be useful in investigating child pornography. FBI Director Robert Mueller said, “We want this for terrorism.”

Both justifications are worthy, of course, and internet service providers already cooperate in providing evidence in such investigations; in fact, the Electronic Communication Transactional Records Act allows a “governmental entity” to require a service provider to preserve specific records for up to 90 days, renewable indefinitely. ISPs are also required by law to report child pornography “sightings.”

What is most insidious here is not the legitimate evidentiary concerns of law enforcement agencies; what should concern us all is the potential for mischief. Think back to the Nixon era and his “enemies list.” This was a list compiled by members of his administration of individuals against whom, according to a memo written by White House counsel John Dean in 1971, "we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies."

Now consider the activities of the Bush administration. Already we know that these guys will stop at nothing to silence or disparage anyone who dares oppose or criticize their policies. That’s what the Valerie Plame leak investigation is all about. That’s why government scientists and cabinet members have found themselves suddenly out of a job.

It doesn’t take much to imagine what Nixon’s boys—Haldeman, Erlichman, Mitchell and Colson—would have done had there been an internet 35 years ago. Even scarier, think of what guys like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove might do if they knew you were sending unflattering jokes to your friends via email, or found that you were visiting “liberal” or anti-war websites.

The string of revelations over the last six months regarding the surveillance of our telephone calls, and three telecommunications giants’ apparent cooperation and collusion, should have us literally up in arms. But polls indicate a somnambulant complacency and lack of concern among many. Perhaps now that the new American Idol has been crowned, we can turn our attention to meatier matters.

One of George W. Bush’s first acts as president in 2001 was to prevent the release of thousands of pages of records from the Reagan administration, scheduled per the mandates of the Presidential Records Act of 1978. Later that year, he issued an Executive Order overruling the PRA’s legal requirement that all presidential and vice presidential records be made available to the public twelve years after leaving office, and gave himself and former presidents (i. e. Reagan and his dad) total discretion in deciding what documents would be released and when.

Since that time, the Bush/Cheney juggernaut has trampled individual rights of privacy while simultaneously running the most clandestine administration since Nixon. They currently classify 16 million documents a year, preventing us from knowing what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.

But they are keeping track of our phone calls to one another. Now they want to enlist our ISPs in monitoring our online shopping, chatting, study, play and work.

This is nuts. We, the people, have a right to know what the government is doing to us, for us, and in our name. The government has no right to intrude into our private lives unless we are breaking a law.

It’s that simple.

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.