The price of lib­erty

Gov­ern­ment agents aren’t the bad guys, but they do need watch­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

Pri­vacy and the se­cu­rity of letters and pa­pers were once re­garded as the in­vi­o­late rights of free men, even some­times guarded to fool­ish lengths. On the eve of Pearl Har­bor in 1941, Cordell Hull, the sec­re­tary of State, re­buked the in­ter­cep­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween Ja­pan and its em­bassy on Mas­sachusetts Av­enue in Wash­ing­ton. “Gen­tle­men,” he said, “don’t read the mail of other gen­tle­men.” Mr. Hull erred in mis­tak­ing evil men for gen­tle­men.

Now the gov­ern­ment goes to fool­ish lengths to plun­der the pri­vacy of all, in­clud­ing gen­tle­men. The gov­ern­ment agents who col­lect and store as much data as they can find of­ten ig­nore the safe­guards of the Fourth Amend­ment. When the gov­ern­ment feels a pub­lic back­lash over a seizure of too much power, it re­treats a step back­ward — only to try again when the tem­pest abates, and then takes two steps for­ward.

Last week that the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee adopted a se­cret cod­i­cil to this year’s au­tho­riza­tion that, if it be­comes law, will en­able gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors to col­lect email data with­out a war­rant merely by writ­ing a let­ter de­mand­ing it. The FBI thought it could do some­thing like this, too, un­til it was told it couldn’t by the Ge­orge W. Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion, a re­buke en­dorsed by Con­gress af­ter the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral dis­cov­ered that the FBI was writ­ing letters — called Na­tional Se­cu­rity Letters — with de­mands sup­ported by weak ev­i­dence to col­lect in­for­ma­tion in a way that “im­pli­cated the tar­get’s First Amend­ment rights.”

Hav­ing failed to get Con­gress to grant the right af­ter pub­lic de­bate, the FBI is try­ing an­other end run, seek­ing au­tho­riza­tion as part of a clas­si­fied au­tho­riza­tion that will avoid pub­lic scru­tiny.

The agents and their lawyers propos­ing such data col­lec­tion have no evil in­tent; they’re just hu­man, at­tempt­ing to ex­ploit the hu­man de­sire to make their jobs eas­ier. They for­get that some­time some­where some­one will get the in­for­ma­tion and mis­use it re­gard­less of good in­ten­tions, prom­ises and in­sti­tu­tional safe­guards. Those ob­sessed with se­cu­rity over all must un­der­stand that the quest for more snoop­ing power nearly al­ways leads to bad ends.

It’s the fear of this mis­use of data and in­for­ma­tion that lies be­hind the gun owner’s hos­til­ity to fed­eral firearms reg­istries. It ex­plains why so many sup­ported Ap­ple for re­fus­ing to help the FBI break the se­cu­rity code on its smart phones. Deep in their DNA Amer­i­cans know that no good is likely to come from a fed­eral gov­ern­ment that says it needs to know ev­ery­thing there is to know about ev­ery Amer­i­can.

The gov­ern­ment is al­ways ea­ger to in­tim­i­date re­porters, but un­til now the agents have been re­luc­tant to try to in­tim­i­date mem­bers of Con­gress. The De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity tried to in­tim­i­date Rep. Ja­son Chaf­fetz, Utah Repub­li­can, who was in­ves­ti­gat­ing mis­con­duct within the agency.

Last week the Se­cret Ser­vice an­nounced the sus­pen­sion of 41 em­ploy­ees for leak­ing con­fi­den­tial files on Mr. Chaf­fetz to The Wash­ing­ton Post. No­body was fired, not yet, but try­ing to in­tim­i­date a mem­ber of Con­gress is never a good idea.

This in­ci­dent was “em­bar­rass­ing” to the Se­cret Ser­vice, and it should stand as a warn­ing to Con­gress that any grant of more power to a fed­eral agency comes with a risk. Eter­nal vig­i­lance is the price of lib­erty, and no­body, not even a spook, knows who’s look­ing.

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