Julian Sanchez has a great op-ed in the LA Times on wiretapping.
As the battle over reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act rages in Congress, civil libertarians warn that legislation sought by the White House could enable spying on "ordinary Americans." Others, like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), counter that only those with an "irrational fear of government" believe that "our country's intelligence analysts are more concerned with random innocent Americans than foreign terrorists overseas."
But focusing on the privacy of the average Joe in this way obscures the deeper threat that warrantless wiretaps poses to a democratic society. Without meaningful oversight, presidents and intelligence agencies can -- and repeatedly have -- abused their surveillance authority to spy on political enemies and dissenters.
The original FISA law was passed in 1978 after a thorough congressional investigation headed by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) revealed that for decades, intelligence analysts -- and the presidents they served -- had spied on the letters and phone conversations of union chiefs, civil rights leaders, journalists, antiwar activists, lobbyists, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices -- even Eleanor Roosevelt and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Church Committee reports painstakingly documented how the information obtained was often "collected and disseminated in order to serve the purely political interests of an intelligence agency or the administration, and to influence social policy and political action."
Political abuse of electronic surveillance goes back at least as far as the Teapot Dome scandal that roiled the Warren G. Harding administration in the early 1920s. When Atty. Gen. Harry Daugherty stood accused of shielding corrupt Cabinet officials, his friend FBI Director William Burns went after Sen. Burton Wheeler, the fiery Montana progressive who helped spearhead the investigation of the scandal. FBI agents tapped Wheeler's phone, read his mail and broke into his office. Wheeler was indicted on trumped-up charges by a Montana grand jury, and though he was ultimately cleared, the FBI became more adept in later years at exploiting private information to blackmail or ruin troublesome public figures. (As New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer can attest, a single wiretap is all it takes to torpedo a political career.)
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It's probably true that ordinary citizens uninvolved in political activism have little reason to fear being spied on, just as most Americans seldom need to invoke their 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech. But we understand that the 1st Amendment serves a dual role: It protects the private right to speak your mind, but it serves an even more important structural function, ensuring open debate about matters of public importance. You might not care about that first function if you don't plan to say anything controversial. But anyone who lives in a democracy, who is subject to its laws and affected by its policies, ought to care about the second.
To be sure, I'm the sort of ornery person who gets mad that the government is forbidding me to take drugs I have absolutely no interest in, so this probably resonates with me more than most. Nonetheless, it bears remembering that you can be materially harmed by infringements on liberty even when it isn't your liberty.
Side thought: how much of the much-vaunted political consensus of the 1930-1965 period might have had its roots in the fact that the government was spying on dissidents?