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.

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About Warren Coats

Dr. Warren L. Coats specializes in advising central banks on monetary policy, and in the development of their capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy. He is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where, as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department, he led missions to over twenty countries. Before then, he served as Visiting Economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and to the World Bank, and was Assistant Prof of Economics at the Univ. of Virginia from 1970-75. Most recently he was Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq; an IMF consultant to the central banks of Afghanistan, Kenya and Zimbabwe; and a Deloitte/USAID advisor to the Government of South Sudan. He is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review and until the end of 2013 was a member of the IMF program team for Afghanistan. His most recent book is entitled "One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina."
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5 Responses to Government Surveillance and the Right to Privacy

  1. John Sainsbury says:

    The full range of physical and mental torture and solitary confinement; or, even execution, are the tools of government force that are being applied in the name of security without benefit of counsel or formal charges or trial by peers. And yet, despite their oath to support and defend the Constitution, there are congressmen calling for prosecution of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden instead of protecting them as whistleblowers of the executive branch’s abuses of constitutional and international law and of unalienable human rights. I’m not optimistic about the recovery of liberty. However, how Edward Snowden is treated may indicate a diminishing opportunity to take the path back to our revolutionary founding values.

  2. Joe Cobb says:

    Warren, I agree entirely with your “leave them alone” foreign policy. This is the “blowback” theory that Ron Paul spoke about in the first debate, which got Rudy Guiliani upset.
    But I also take seriously some criticism of Islam itself. Sam Harris wrote an article this week suggesting the central meaning of the religion INCLUDES a mandate to perform harm on non-believers.

    Sam Harris, “Islam and the Misuses of Ecstasy [not the party drug]

    Near the end of Harris’ article, is a video (with English subtitles) of Sheikh Mishary bin Rashid Alafasy of Kuwait reading from the Qur’an. He has as many Twitter followers as Jerry Seinfeld and J.K. Rowling (2 million). In doctrinal terms, this is not the fringe of Islam. It is the center. Islam is a powerful, emotional religion. Harris criticizes secular Western atheist writers who seem unable to understand the POWER of this religious belief; its emotional power. But Harris wants us to remember that Allah has told the faithful to perform harm to non-believers.

    I think the problem is Muslim immigration to Europe and America. Ibn Q’ud spent time in Colorado before returning to Egypt to write his book of hate, which inspired Bin Laden. The brothers in Boston fell for this hateful message and acted out their frustration at failures in life. But they acted out of passion, too. Love Allah enough to die for him, and to follow his writings about harming non-believers.

    Yes, we should and MUST stop provoking the wild animal with a stick. But we must remember it is a wild animal and it wants to eat you.

  3. Pingback: The Rise of Interest Rates: What it Really Means - MarkSkousen.com

  4. Mike Burnaugh says:

    Dear Warren: This is as finely reasoned as anything you have written. An issue like this separates the power toadies from the libertarians in both parties. This comes as we stick our noses into the Syrian maelstrom. We are not yet completely out of two ten year wars in Iraq and Afghaniostan, and John McCain wants us in Syria. Gee, what could possibly go wrong?

    Am I wrong to claim that I have known you longer than anyone likely to comment on this, your latest post? I was there in 1956 as your legend began. We want more!

    • wcoats says:

      Mike,

      Thanks. You surely are my longest friend on these pages. I am sitting in my office easy chair as I write looking at a picture of us talking with Barry Goldwater in (I am guessing) 1962 or 3. We both have crew cuts. It is my second favorite picture on these walls.

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