Nation of suspects in land of the free

May 17, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- The Bush administration has managed to cross George Orwell with Sting. Every step you take, every move you make, Big Brother will be watching you.

No one is exempt from the National Security Agency's program to amass a record of every phone call, with the help of major telecommunications providers. As one insider told USA Today, "It's the largest database ever assembled in the world."

And have no doubt: You're in it.

President Bush insisted, "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans." In fact, that's exactly what his administration is doing - 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is no longer possible (unless you're a customer of Qwest, which has refused to cooperate) to make a telephone call without the government knowing about it and keeping a record of it. We are all suspects now.

Why should law-abiding citizens care about this surveillance? To begin with, even the best of us sometimes make calls we wouldn't want everyone to know about. Another reason is that we could be implicated in terrorism through no fault of our own. Suppose you call your friend Bob, who later calls his friend Rashid, who later calls his cousin in Kabul. The government may conclude you're consorting with associates of al-Qaida.

It's not just the NSA that will know whom you call. According to USA Today, the NSA told Qwest that "other government agencies, including the FBI, CIA and DEA, also might have access to the database." What's next? The IRS? The Office of Child Support Enforcement? Your local police?

But privacy is valuable even if you have nothing to hide. Each of us benefits from having a zone in which we can do as we please without fear of exposure. Thanks to this program, there is no longer an impermeable barrier around your personal zone. It's more like a screen door on a submarine.

Investigative powers often have been used by unscrupulous people in government to intimidate, coerce or embarrass their enemies. Even if the administration has the noblest intentions, this database is vulnerable to abuse.

Law enforcement officers have ample experience with gadgets that monitor who's calling whom. But those require police to convince a judge they will yield information relevant to an investigation. In this program, here's what the government has to show: nothing.

His latest extralegal initiative furnishes more evidence that George W. Bush regards himself as an elected dictator, free to do anything he wants in the name of national security.

In December, it emerged that the NSA was eavesdropping on the contents of phone calls and e-mail messages between Americans on U.S. soil and people abroad. That program was of doubtful legality, and so is this one. As a rule, federal law forbids phone companies from turning over calling records to anyone, and it forbids the government from getting call records without a court order or a national security letter.

So it's cold comfort to hear Mr. Bush say that "the intelligence activities I authorized are lawful." He said the same thing about the other NSA program. But when the Justice Department undertook an investigation, the White House refused to grant its attorneys the security clearances they needed to proceed. The Bush administration doesn't trust even Bush administration lawyers to agree the program is kosher.

Even if you don't care about the privacy of your phone records, you might care that we have a president who feels no obligation to obey the law. You might care that if the government was secretly doing this, it may be doing other things that are even more worrisome. And you might care that one day, we may find that the free society we claim to cherish has become a police state.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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