“Life in the surveillance state”

Being forced by the government to spy on your own neighbors, customers, friends and family. It’s coming. And it will be brought to you by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose national security letters have recently attracted national attention due to findings of abuse and lawbreaking by FBI agents.

Earlier this month, the Department of Justice inspector general’s office reported that FBI agents repeatedly broke the law in issuing national security letters and so-called “exigent letters” where the bureau didn’t have the legal authority to request the information, didn’t need the information, or didn’t even have an open case.

One of the victims, an owner of an Internet service provider who challenged the national security letters in court, has had a letter published anonymously in the Washington Post. In a heading appearing before the letter, the Post explained that while the author would have preferred to be named, the FBI still insists on maintaining its gag order over the person.

Living under the gag order has been stressful and surreal. Under the threat of criminal prosecution, I must hide all aspects of my involvement in the case — including the mere fact that I received an NSL — from my colleagues, my family and my friends. When I meet with my attorneys I cannot tell my girlfriend where I am going or where I have been. I hide any papers related to the case in a place where she will not look. When clients and friends ask me whether I am the one challenging the constitutionality of the NSL statute, I have no choice but to look them in the eye and lie.

I resent being conscripted as a secret informer for the government and being made to mislead those who are close to me, especially because I have doubts about the legitimacy of the underlying investigation.

The inspector general’s report makes clear that NSL gag orders have had even more pernicious effects. Without the gag orders issued on recipients of the letters, it is doubtful that the FBI would have been able to abuse the NSL power the way that it did. Some recipients would have spoken out about perceived abuses, and the FBI’s actions would have been subject to some degree of public scrutiny. To be sure, not all recipients would have spoken out; the inspector general’s report suggests that large telecom companies have been all too willing to share sensitive data with the agency — in at least one case, a telecom company gave the FBI even more information than it asked for. But some recipients would have called attention to abuses, and some abuse would have been deterred. — Washington Post

The whole thing is well worth reading.

“This businessman has given us a sneak preview of life in the surveillance state,” writes Timothy Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. “I’ve tried to draw attention to the conscription aspect [PDF] of anti-terrorism laws and policies, but conservatives don’t want to talk about it. . . .

Liberty has been losing ground to government over the years,” Lynch says. “Since 9/11, we have been in a vicious political cycle. The courts are defending constitutional liberties at the margins, but the overall trend is quite bad. A few months ago, some U.S. senators voted to enact a law that they believed to be unconstitutional. That’s an indication of the political climate. Bad.”

One receipient of a national security letter, who also called the American Civil Liberties Union instead of just rolling over, has already been named in published reports as George Christian of Library Connection, Inc., which maintains Internet connections for public libraries in Connecticut. Several details of Christian’s case do not match those of the businessman whose letter the Post published anonymously.

The FBI, for its part, decided it didn’t need those records after all, and left the anonymous writer alone — except to instruct him to remain silent about ever having received the national security letter. There goes your First Amendment.

At this rate, soon we’re all going to be forced at gunpoint to turn each other in for all manner of thought crimes — and face prison for speaking out. This can’t be the sort of state that “conservatives” want us to live in. Didn’t we spend half a century fighting against this sort of thing?

One thought on ““Life in the surveillance state”

  • March 27, 2007 at 7:59 pm

    As a young pup I took a college class in psychology and my term paper dealt with ‘cognitive consonance and dissonance’ which describes Verbos’ statement about people blocking out things that they don’t like. Verbos is quite correct.

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