The American surveillance state

Stalin would be impressed by the efforts of Obama, Bush and Congress

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President Barack Obama's approach to spying on Americans is Stalinist in its orientation, put into effect with 21st century technology.

He, President George W. Bush before him, and the Congress, which either looked the other way or knew and didn't have the courage to oppose what was going on, have showed themselves ready to sell Americans' privacy and freedom down the river. The theory of all of them is that, if what they were doing was revealed and they had to explain it, Americans would accept the grade-school-level excuse, sometimes used by parents limiting their children's freedom, "Dear, we're just keeping you safe."

These people -- Mr. Obama, Mr. Bush, the Congress and their employees, all of whom we the taxpayers pay -- have put into place a system where Americans' phone calls, emails, Twitters, and credit card transactions, soon to be joined by surveillance cameras hung from every pole and tree, are monitored by the government. The fact that the existence of these systems has been kept secret may indicate that even they understand how outrageous in terms of our personal freedoms what they are doing is.

There are lots of problems with it, even apart from the attack on Americans' freedoms. In addition to the collection, compilation and long-term storage of what has been scooped up, there is the question of how many people have been hired to study and analyze the data. And what, exactly, is the level of trustworthiness of the people doing the analysis, not to mention the financial cost of putting all these people on the government payroll to spy on us?

Countless government employees and contractors now have our credit card numbers and whatever other vital information about us we have communicated on the phone, in emails, or on the Internet. Is there any reason to believe that there is no relationship between the rising frequency of identity theft and the information on us that the government now has? Analysis of the data is performed at the top by people of the integrity of, say, former CIA Director David E. Petraeus.

My first contact with government bugging was in white-ruled apartheid South Africa in 1970. The government there at that time was headed by Prime Minister John Vorster, a former Minister of Police and Prisons. I assumed my phone was bugged because the subject area I covered was black opposition politics. The fact that it was bugged was confirmed to me by a South African friend in the government. What that meant was that I never did or said anything that would have been of interest to the government on the phone.

My next overseas experience of the phenomenon was in Communist Bulgaria. Again, I assumed that was the case. In general, I responded to it with good humor, sometimes even amusing myself by telephoning people in Bulgarian or French as well as in English, or switching in mid-conversation, just to make the government's listeners' lives more complicated. They also bugged our apartment. One night, after a few glasses of Bulgarian wine, I tore out the microphone and its wires and threw them out the window.

Now, bugging the communications of an American Embassy officer in apartheid South Africa or Communist Bulgaria was one thing. Doing it in the United States should be something different. Land of the free, etc. In fact, I've maintained the same approach to phones, emails and the Internet that I learned overseas to life in the United States as well. That's probably part of why it's no fun to call me on the phone.

On the other hand, even if one can force oneself to take that basic precaution, there are still serious problems with Mr. Obama's Stalinist approach to Americans' communications. As a columnist and retired diplomat I still do have contacts in the Middle East. From time to time I talk with them on the phone. I also talk to my children and grandchildren on the phone. So I get a call from Tehran. The National Security Agency in its comprehensive sweep picks it up and puts me on its surveillance list. I then call my grandson. Now he's on their list, too. This, on the part of the federal government, is expensive craziness.

There is now some question as to how it could be that 29-year-old former CIA employee, now Booz, Allen, Hamilton contractor Edward J. Snowden could have come to blow the whistle on the administration's great spying adventure.

The first thing to note is that Mr. Snowden is a contractor, not a civil servant. He has little institutional loyalty to his employer, if it even can be identified as Booz Allen, the CIA or the National Security Agency. His basic mission is to run up billable hours. He gets no pension. If he doesn't agree with the policies of whomever he sees as his employer there is no question of his rising higher in the organization and changing its policies -- the moral refuge of people like me who worked for the Department of State. No pension, no promotion possibilities, no loyalty -- except to his own concept of the Constitution and Americans' rights, in this case the people's right to know what is being done to them by their government.

So, in my view, I don't especially approve of his methods but I can easily see why he did what he did. From the interview with him I saw, he seems to have thought through his actions. He also seems ready to pay the price, if the Department of Justice is able to put into place a case against him and get their hands on him. He may still be in Hong Kong, a little close to China. He is talking about getting to Iceland, which he hopes will protect him. If the U.S. government gets its hands on him, there is a decent chance it wouldn't dare send him to the U.S. Naval Station prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That's just for foreigners to whom we deny due process of law.

The system that two administrations and the Congress have put into place is thoroughly disgusting and un-American. I am not prepared to give up my freedom in the name of being safe, as if we were. Surveillance didn't stop the Tsarnaevs in Boston, the slaughter of the children in Sandy Hook, nor in Santa Monica, where a man killed six on Friday.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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