On December 6, 1942, a telephone message astonished the physicists working on the Manhattan Project with these words: “...the Italian navigator has just landed in the New World,” meaning that University of Chicago Professor Enrico Fermi had just proven the technology needed to make the world’s first atomic bomb. At that moment, although no one knew it yet, the balance of power between Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch began to shift toward the Oval Office. Why? Because, with the eventual advent of thermo-nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the decision time between devastating nuclear war or abject surrender was reduced to about 30 minutes.
Consequently, possessing accurate intelligence about potential enemy capabilities and intentions became essential to our survival and that led to massive investments in intelligence-gathering technologies. For example, now there is PRISM, which the Obama Administration is using to eavesdrop on U.S. cell phones. The recent disclosure of PRISM caused late-night comic Jimmy Fallon to comment: “Another scandal hit the White House today. A report found that the government has been secretly collecting the phone records of Verizon customers. I knew something was up when I said, “You hang up first.” Then my wife said, “No, YOU hang up first!” Then Obama said, “Uh, how about you just hang up at the same time?”
But U.S. Government spying on its own citizens is nothing new. The Clinton Administration initiated ECHELON — a Top Secret electronic eavesdropping program designed to listen in on foreign countries, terrorist groups, drug cartels, and even U.S. citizens. After ECHELON was exposed by “CBS 60 Minutes,” the pro-Clinton New York Times opined that ECHELON was “a necessity.” After 9/11, when the Bush Administration obtained overwhelming bipartisan support to enact the Patriot Act which, in effect, legalized ECHELON, the New York Times said the eavesdropping program it endorsed under Clinton was unconstitutional under Bush. Go figure.
People of a certain age were raised to think that our private correspondence and our phone calls were private. Of course, in the old days, the telephone operators might listen in after making a connection. Some may recall asking to be connected to the Smith household only to be told by the operator that the Smith family was away on vacation. That kind of eavesdropping was more on the order of a public service than it was spying on your private life.
To be fair, it should be noted that the Eisenhower Administration conducted a “flaps and seals” operation that could open, read, and reseal mail sent to certain U.S. citizens who were thought to have interests “inimical to the United States of America.” But it was only mail coming from communist countries that got the “flaps and seals” treatment.
Now, Russia, Red China, and the U.S. Government have the ability to listen to our cell phones, to read what we place on the Internet, and even to monitor each computer keystroke — as I am sure that at least one of them is doing right now.
While this is worrisome, and it should be, we can only hope for the rediscovery of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That, however, is a political question that can only be resolved at the ballot box and/or by the Judicial Branch.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.