March 18, 2008 | By Hugh D'Andrade

How Surveillance Hurts Free Speech

Sunday's LA Times has a great opinion piece by political writer Julian Sanchez, situating the current debate over FISA reform within the long and sordid history of illegal surveillance in the US.

Going back to the '20s, Sanchez reviews multiple occasions when authorities have used spying powers not to protect the country, but to further the political aims of parties and politicians:

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."

Sanchez traces the history of US government surveillance abuses by both Democrats and Republicans throughout the 20th century. He emphasizes that surveillance isn't just a threat to privacy — it's a threat to free speech. That's why today's wiretapping debate matters, even to those who may think they have nothing to fear:

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.

The Atlantic Monthly's Matthew Yglesias follows up, putting the current legislative fight over immunizing telephone companies in context:

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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