FBI: “Trust Us”

The FBI is giving more power to its agents to go through trash, search databases, and follow people who have attracted their interest. No worries, though. Valerie Caproni, the FBI’s general counsel, says each change was carefully considered. Well, that’s it for today. I was going to write about this, but since the FBI says we are OK, there is no sense stirring up the cow pile.

Wait, I just had a flash thought. What if they are only saying that all this is OK? What if maybe, just maybe, an agency of our government were incompetent? Or maybe even lying? Hmmmmm…maybe I had better write this one after all.

No sane person would argue that our government should never investigate someone. I am all in favor of catching the bad guys/gals who have done or seek to do us harm, from mobsters to terrorists. I do not, however, endorse a blank check for law enforcement to rummage around our phone and e-mail records.

The real and potential abuses of the FBI’s powers are myriad, so let’s focus on one: National Security Letters. NSL’s were first introduced in 1978. They are a type of subpoena, but one that requires no probable cause and has no provision for judicial oversight. They do not even require that one be a suspect of any kind. Ostensibly, the issuers can only request non-content information such as transaction records, though it is hard to figure how that was ever relevant. Here’s why: At first, they contained a gag order.

The gag order meant that the recipient of such a letter could not reveal to anyone that the letter existed. That is, a branch of our government could, without anyone to check its power, get information on just about anyone it wanted and simultaneously remove any means for complaining about it. Nice, if you happen to be the one wielding the power.

I am sorry to report that the letters were abused. I know, it’s hard to believe, but people in power used their power to bad ends. To wit, the government’s own Inspector General found that they lied about the number of letters issued. They also used exigent letters improperly. Exigent letters are similar to NSL’s but are used in cases where immediate information is required and a subpoena has been sought, such as a kidnapping. To top it all off, they used their power to gather information on “communities of interest.” Merely having contact with a person who was of interest to say, the FBI, one who was him/herself not really suspected of anything, made one a target.

In short, the government got away with as much as it could until reined in (at least somewhat) by another branch of government–the judiciary. Smart fellows, those Founders. Yet for all their wisdom, they may well have underestimated the propensity for people acting on behalf of our government to abuse their power. In this case, the good guys stemmed the tide of abuse. I wonder if they see the tsunami on its way.

Retaining individual rights cannot be just a matter of passing the buck to the judiciary. It requires each and every one of us to be vigilant and cantankerous. It requires us to speak out and when necessary, act out, in defense of our rights. Do we still have that kind of national character? I doubt it. We lie down for every vegetable-brained idea dished out by the EPA. We sit idly by while our neighbors’ phone records are investigated. We allow the government to tell us what to put in our bodies, how to educate our children, and when our speech is hateful. We are a nation of The Obedient, preferring to be told what to do rather than defy authority. How pathetic.

People in power are rarely as well-intentioned as we imagine and they are even more rarely competent to recommend anything to anyone. Will we continue to defer to them for guidance in living or will we assert our birthrights as free individuals? I hope it is the latter, but hope is fleeting. I rather think the world will end–soon. The candle of freedom will be doused and a few courageous souls will guard the Great Secret for centuries until it is rekindled into a flame again.

Scared? Good. Now do something about it.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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