My friend Julian Sanchez had a great op-ed in yesterday's Los Angeles Times about the history of wiretap abuse in the United States before the adoption of FISA and its relevance to the current debate. As Julian says, the issue isn't just the privacy of the ordinary citizen, but the ability of the President of the United States to use wiretaps against his political opponents. What's more, this isn't a theoretical problem, it's the precisely reason the rules were adopted in the first place:
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.
FDR and Harry Truman did some dirt, LBJ did more, and then Richard Nixon took things to such extravagant extremes that he got caught, people got outraged, and restrictions were put in place. But the stuff that had been going on for decades before Nixon was really bad on its own on its own terms. Given the long bipartisan record of wiretap abuse, and given the greater range of possible abuses under modern technological circumstances, it's all-but-inevitable that if we further weaken the restrictions on the White House's ability to act, that abuses will happen.
It's really baffling to me that Republican members of congress -- and all-too-many Senate Democrats -- don't see it this way. Unlimited, unaccountable power will be abused, and not always in ways that Republicans like.
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