“Inalienable” rights

Max Frankel, in an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, issues a warning to all Americans to protect their rights and control their government:

NOW that we sense the magnitude of our government’s effort to track Americans’ telephone and Internet transactions, the issue finally and fully before us is not how we balance personal privacy with police efficiency.

We have long since surrendered a record of our curiosities and fantasies to Google. We have broadcast our tastes and addictions for the convenience of one-button Amazon shopping. We have published our health and financial histories in exchange for better and faster hospital and bank services. We have bellowed our angers and frustrations for all to overhear while we walk the streets or ride a bus. Privacy is a currency that we all now routinely spend to purchase convenience.

But Google and Amazon do not indict, prosecute and jail the people they track and bug. The issue raised by the National Security Agency’s data vacuuming is how to protect our civil liberty against the anxious pursuit of civic security. Our rights must not be so casually bartered as our Facebook chatter. Remember “inalienable”?

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As those of us who had to defend the 1971 publication of the secret Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War have been arguing ever since, there can be no mature discussion of national security policies without the disclosure — authorized or not — of the government’s hoard of secrets.

HOW many thousands have access to these storage bins? Who decides to open any individual file and who then gains access to its content? Is there ever a chance to challenge the necessity of opening a file? And what happens to gleaned information that has no bearing whatsoever on terrorism?

Given the history of misused “secrets” in Washington, such questions are by no means paranoid. J. Edgar Hoover used F.B.I. investigations and files to smear the reputations of individuals — even to the point of intimidating presidents. Throughout the government, “security” monitors leaked personnel files to Congressional demagogues like Senator Joseph R. McCarthy to wreck the careers of officials and blacklisted citizens with claims of disloyalty. President Lyndon B. Johnson and other officials used secret files from the Internal Revenue Service to harass and intimidate political opponents. President Richard M. Nixon tried to use the C.I.A. to cover up his Watergate crimes.