The Obama administration task force that reviewed the unbridled surveillance activities of the National Security Agency recommended new policies that may make us feel a little better about how much the government is watching us, but overshadow a larger issue: the presumption the government would never abuse the information it collects.
Unfortunately, history suggests otherwise.
Few remember an operation called COINTELPRO, a domestic intelligence program operated by the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover from 1956 to 1971. The purpose of the Counter Intelligence Program was to root out alleged communists in America, through surveillance and indeed infiltration of domestic groups that included Vietnam protesters, church groups and peace activists like Martin Luther King Jr.
Eventually, the Senate authorized a committee led by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho to investigate the program.
The committee’s conclusions were damning. “Our investigation has established that the targets of intelligence activity have ranged far beyond persons who could properly be characterized as enemies of freedom and have extended to a wide array of citizens engaging in lawful activity.”
Some would say the modern-day IRS probe of Tea Party-related groups for auditing was no different the COINTELPRO.
So while the surveillance task force recommended needed changes such as the halting of massive and all-encompassing data collection on all Americans’ phone records, and a more focused collection, the change only has impact if we can trust those in charge of it to obey the rules.
And while Obama has said he has authorized by executive order a kind of whistle-blower protection that would allow intelligence workers to raise issues with the collection and use of data, we suspect very few people in this line of work have incentives to be whistle-blowers, given the recent experience of Edward Snowden.
There is no doubt that we have to balance the need to gather information to stop terrorists against the need for our citizens’ rights to privacy — to be left alone.
But the issue goes beyond that. Information is power, and too much power of information in the hands of the government could strike at democratic institutions themselves and our democracy as a whole, as history has shown.