There is often a “drum roll, crash!” when someone from the government mentions that we have a very sophisticated intelligence system in this country. Of course, the pundit is referring to the use of the word which would mean that we have a smart, clever, highly-sophisticated educational system which produces really, smart people. ( I happen to believe that we do, indeed, have a system which produces really smart people, but I also know that we have a long way to go in perfecting it.)
What the government means by its statement is that we have a very sophisticated system for gathering data which is crucial to our safety and out foreign policy. That, too, is know as intelligence. It refers to such agencies as the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, NCIS, and all those other alphabet organizations that employ men and women to eavesdrop, go undercover, or whatever it takes to discover what other countries or enemy organizations (such as al Qaeda) are thinking and talking about, especially as it relates to the United States.
The methods of our intelligence agencies vary from electronic surveillance and satellite surveillance to actual infiltration, by which agents become trusted enough to be present when secrets are shared. You have seen all the same movies and television programs I have seen, so I don’t need to be more specific.
But questions have arisen over the past few weeks about the boundaries surrounding these organizations. We are clear that the FBI, for instance, does not have international powers. Anything being scrutinized beyond our borders falls under the aegis of the CIA or other alphabet groups with international directives. But when U.S. government agencies began investigating news organizations from our own country to the point of using electronic surveillance equipment which monitored telephone, e-mail and electronic messaging systems employed for gathering personal and professional matters, the subjects of scrutiny cried “Enough!” Violations of First Amendment rights became central to the response, and…before you knew it…there was a full-blown scandal on the front pages of newspapers and at the top of lead-in stories on television news shows. Congress became involved, and vitreol flowed profusely.
There is no question in my mind that there are all kinds of reasons to be upset about this discovery. Boundaries exist for good reason, and it is clear that boundaries were crossed in this matter. All of the protestations from the Administration (especially the Attorney General) began to sound like “cover your butt” commentary. And now we are in the delicate position of having to sort out what is fact and what is fantasy.
No matter where this scandal leads, it is clear that we are at a time when, given the prominence of electronic and social media, boundaries need to be re-stated, and promises need to be made to protect those boundaries. I’m not prescribing to “off with their heads” kinds of solutions that abound. But I do believe that significant, transparent action needs to be taken to guarantee that the First Amendment is not abused in a frivolous manner. That’s a slippery slope we don’t need.
Cartoon Credit: The Interpretation of Dreams