Editorial: The abuses of spying

Recently revealed government spying on peaceful protestors and potentially everyone’s phone records, email and Internet activity are outrageous violations of the First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. They are shocking examples of fear overcoming wisdom and power overcoming democracy.

These are not abstract violations happening somewhere else. The Boston Police spying on anti-war groups was rightfully the subject of a recent protest here. The federal fishing expedition through Verizon’s business phone records may well have included the Gazette, which uses that company’s services. National Security Agency peeking at emails of millions of citizens undoubtedly meant reading the mail of many journalists in violation of the First Amendment.

The notion that we need these Big Brother systems to protect us from terrorists is nonsense. Indeed, they are examples of how thoroughly the terrorists have won by scaring us into destroying Western individualism, privacy and freedom of conscience. Preventing 9/11 would not have required tracking every citizen’s phone calls. It would simply have taken reinforced cockpit doors and more than rudimentary pre-boarding security, measures that experts had advocated to no avail for 30 years.

The Fourth Amendment requires that government searches happen only with a warrant limiting them to a specific person and items for a particular period, and bars “unreasonable” searches. It was written from experience to prevent exactly the sort of searching the NSA is doing right now. To combat smuggling, the British government used to issue general warrants allowing its agents to search any place at any time, and forcing anyone to help them do so. The Colonists rightly judged that “legal” search to be a tyrannical abuse. If the Founding Fathers thought searching everyone’s basement for smuggled goods was unreasonable, we can safely say they would find reading the personal email of everyone in the country who used a suspicious word to be fantastically insane.

Writing in 1771 in an earlier Boston newspaper called the Gazette, the revolutionary hero Samuel Adams mocked the idea that if the government decided we have to lose key civil liberties, “we must submit to it, without the least intimation to posterity that we looked upon it as unconstitutional or unjust.”

“But remember, my countrymen,” Adams continued, “it will be better to have your liberties wrested from you by force, than to have it said that you even implicitly surrendered them.”

History was on his side. American liberties continue to be our strength, not our weakness. Government spies need to get out of everyone’s business, including that of today’s Gazette, and stay out.

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