2011/03/10

Surveillance by law enforcement and by national security agencies

A former director of the CIA and a former Attorney General argue that the Patriot Act must be renewed without any conditions and without any “sunset” provisions (Provisions designed to expire after a certain date). The Seattle Times spoke eloquently about how human beings simply can't be trusted with that sort of unlimited surveillance authority. I read in someplace about how President Lyndon Johnson was one day fuming about a political opponent of his and how he'd like to take a look at the fellow's FBI file. His wife recommended against doing so with the observation that FBI files contained a lot of garbage, that is, a lot of unverified information and unconfirmed rumors. Why would that be? Was the FBI of the mid-1960s a bad place that was careless about how it gathered information?

I would argue that it wasn't. That the FBI files of people that the President both liked and didn't like contained un-screened information because that's how the FBI gathers information. Being an agency that was dedicated to protecting the public, they wanted then and still want today to throw up as wide a screen as possible to vacuum up everything that could possibly be of any relevance, no matter how irrelevant it appears to be at the time it's collected. Even small details that appear to be of no consequence can be crucially important when placed together with other small details.

The problem, and this is something I have never seen any Republican or any conservative acknowledge since 2001, when the issue of surveillance first became of deep relevance, is that domestic law enforcement agencies have a different mandate that requires a different approach. Domestic law enforcement agencies require that, in order to enforce a law by punishing a citizen, the agency must be confident that the citizen really, truly, indeed, committed the crime that he or she has been accused of committing. That is why there was a “wall” between the national security agencies and between the law enforcement agencies. That is why civil libertarians argue for re-erecting such a wall today. That is an argument that isn't even acknowledged by right-wingers to this day and which is glaring by its absence from the WaPo article today.

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