by Nat Hentoff
from HUSTLER Magazine November 2010
AS BIG BROTHER GETS BIGGER AND BOLDER, AMERICANS ARE ONCE AGAIN LIVING IN “TIMES THAT TRY MEN’S SOULS.”
Many years ago I went to a conference on privacy at Harvard University. The keynote speaker, a high-level assistant to then- FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, was unusually frank for an FBI official. He bellowed, “Privacy? It’s gone.” Even Hoover himself had no idea of how deep and continuing that loss would become. Last year the Electronic Privacy Foundation—the premier defender of our digital civil liberties—accused the U.S. government of engaging “in a massive program of illegal dragnet surveillance of domestic communications and communications records of millions of ordinary Americans since at least 2001.”
Our home and business phones and e-mails are, of course, porous. But federal eyes and ears have moved on to cell phones, texting, Twitter and their ever-more-sophisticated progeny, while also increasing experimentation with methods of mind control through behavioral modification techniques and beyond. (For details, see “Obama Interrogation Official Linked to U.S. Mind Control Research” at PubRecord.org, May 25, 2010.)
James Bamford, the most informed investigator of our cavernous Big Brother—the National Security Agency, known for its limitless databases—reveals in his 2008 book The Shadow Factory : “NSA is also developing another tool that Orwell’s Thought Police might have found useful—an artificial intelligence system designed to know what people are thinking.”
I’ve written about our vanishing privacy in this column and in my books, but never with such penetratingly profound awareness as the Wall Street Journal ’s Peggy Noonan in her article “Our Lives Laid Bare”: “When we lose our privacy, we lose some of our humanity; we lose the things that are particular to us, that make us separate and distinctive as souls, as actually children of God.”
Actually, I’m an atheist, but I do have a secular soul with what once were secret compartments that may now be in “persons of interest” files at the J. Edgar Hoover Building, the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Also, as an unremitting critic of Bush and Cheney and now Obama—the continuer of their anti- Constitutional legacy—I’m not unmindful that were there another 9/11 or worse, I might have a compulsory change of address. So far I’ve not been able to get my actual current FBI files; but the one I saw years ago had me at a North Africa meeting of purportedly dangerous radicals.
I have never been to Africa, North or South. I did meet Che Guevara once, at New York’s Cuban Mission to the United Nations, and I had the irreverent nerve to ask him if Cuba would ever have free elections. He laughed sardonically, obviously not regarding me as a dependable revolutionary.
But there are millions of Americans without a tinge of radicalism or libertarianism (my core belief) in their past who are disquieted at being part of a society under ceaseless surveillance. They hear about current cases like that of Bruce Shore, who caught Kentucky Republican Senator Jim Bunning on C-SPAN complaining about having missed a basketball game to vote on unemployment benefits and then delaying the vote. Shore, a 51-year-old unemployed resident of Philadelphia, sent critical e-mails about Bunning to members of the senator’s staff, including “No checks equal no food for me. DO YOU GET IT?”
This citizen, supposedly protected by the First Amendment, was soon visited by United States marshals, who presented him with a grand jury indictment for violating the Communications Decency Act. His alleged crime? Shore, as this law spells out, “did use a telecommunications device, that is, a computer, whether or not communication ensued, without disclosing his identity, to annoy, abuse, threaten and harass any person who received the communication.”
Whether or not Shore is eventually found guilty, he is now in a stream of government databases, where he will probably remain for the rest of his life—unless we get a President whose bible, whatever his religion, or none, is the Constitution. If Shore is convicted, he faces up to two years in the slammer and a $250,000 fine.
As for many of the rest of us who could be ensnared in this federal dragnet, Peggy Noonan writes that “Americans, as a people, are not really suited to the age of surveillance, the age of no privacy. There is no hiding place now, not here.”
Can we ever get our privacy back? Not unless we fight for it. A movement has begun. According to the Wall Street Journal, such abusers of our privacy as Microsoft, Google, Intel and AT&T “are pushing for more stringent regulations on government ability to access electronic communications.”
They are seeking a basic reform and updating of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which “extended restrictions on government wiretaps to data transmissions as well as phone calls” and “regulated privacy in stored data.” But these so-called restrictions have gone with the Presidential winds and whims. Therefore, this coalition—whose ultimate aim is to restore personal privacy—calls itself Digital Due Process.
Congressman John Conyers Jr. (DMichigan), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says he will lead these attempts to rescue privacy. I know that Conyers is deeply into our American music of individual liberty— jazz—but he needs help. Although it may take some courage after what happened to Bruce Shore, notify your representatives in the House and Senate that you demand your privacy back. Peggy Noonan reminds us: “There are cameras all over. No terrorist can escape them, but none of the rest of us can either.”
Nat Hentoff is a historian of the Constitution, a jazz critic and a columnist for the Village Voice and Free Inquiry. His incisive books include The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America ; Living the Bill of Rights ; and the forthcoming Is This America?