Watergate Turns 41, NSA Is Older

State Surveillance has come a Long Way Since Nixon Hired Cuban Burglars

National Security Agency (NSA) Covertly Inspects Anyone’s Private Life

How many people do you know who, hearing that the NSA was busy obliterating privacy, have reacted to the effect of: well, duh, or that’s old news, or worse: didn’t we make that legal?   It’s not as though the NSA is carrying out break-ins, is it?

Forty-one years ago, on June 17, 1972, the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel evoked similar reactions along the lines of big deal, or who cares?  The Nixon White House officially dubbed it a “third-rate burglary attempt,” with a secret irony that Oval Office operatives could enjoy right through the fall election and President Nixon’s sweeping, landslide victory.

Secretly (except from himself) taped six days after the break-in, the President asked: “Who was the asshole who ordered it?”  Some take this to mean he didn’t know about the break-in in advance, others think it means he was aware that he was taping himself and needed to sound innocent.  Either way, he ordered a cover-up that was effective for a time.

Like current White House, with its record number of prosecutions under the 1913 Espionage Act, the Nixon White House could also behave obsessively about leaks.  In May 1969, when the New York Times revealed the secret bombing of Cambodia (not that it was secret to the Cambodians), Nixon ordered more than a dozen FBI wiretaps, but didn’t find the leaker.  So the White house created its own secret team, called the Plumbers Unit, to stop leaks by wiretapping, burglarizing, and any means necessary.

Thanks to Congress and 9/11, Obama Doesn’t Need to Break the Law 

But just because the President may not need to break the law, that doesn’t mean his administration hasn’t broken the law anyway.

The first wave of post-Watergate legislation in the early 1970s did much to make government more accountable and transparent, at least in principle.   But the second wave of post-Watergate legislation has had a counter-revolutionary effect, expanding the powers of government and curtailing the freedoms of citizens, most notably in the fear-driven and wildly misnamed USA PATRIOT Act, but in many less sweeping but equally freedom-inhibiting bills as well.

Most characteristic of the relationship of Americans and the law over the past three decades is the response to the Bush Administration illegally wiretapping Americans – about which the Congress did nothing but make the activities legal and give the phone companies retroactive immunity from prosecution.  This is what is generally referred to in popular demagoguery as “the rule of law.”

By Now American Discourse is Deep into Orwellian Obfuscation and Deceit

“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” President Obama blandly and irrelevantly assured the American people after the NSA sweep of all our meta-data was revealed.  The assurance was irrelevant because the issue was the administration’s secret interpretation of the law governing the secret workings of a secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court.

According to Obama, in an interview with Charlie Rose, the secret decisions of the secret court operating on the basis of a secret legal opinion all add up to a system that is “transparent.”  Also, it’s not eating your lunch.

Obama also said on June 7: “The programs are secret in the sense that they are classified. They are not secret, in that every member of Congress has been briefed…. These are programs that have been authored by large bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006.”

Contrary to Obama’s assertion, a number of Congressmen said that they had not been briefed.  The White House promptly held a series of congressional briefings.

Obama’s claim of “large bipartisan majorities” passing the laws under which the NSA and other spy agencies operate is a true enough description of congressional spinelessness.  Obama is deceitful in avoiding his administration’s secret interpretation of those laws.

Congressmen, Senators Leap on “Do Something About the NSA” Bandwagon

Senator Ron Wyden has been trying for years to get people’s attention about their government’s spying on them, but he has been constrained by official secrecy laws.

Now the Oregon Democrat is joining with fellow Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, to bring forward a bill to “limit the federal government’s ability to collect data on Americans without a demonstrated link to terrorism or espionage.”

A number of other lawmakers are offering or promising to offer bills dealing with the NSA and even other spy agencies, among them Rep. John Conyers, Democrat, and Rep. Justin Amash, Republican, both of Michigan, as well as the entire Vermont congressional delegation (three members).

Most of the congressional rhetoric so far is about tidying up the situation, but not changing it substantially.  You can hear their outrage as much as two and three feet away.

An exception is Florida Democrat Rep. Alan Grayson who has introduced a simple and straight-forward solution to the ambiguities and complexities of NSA-related issues: if the NSA acts without probable cause, the NSA loses its funding.

Offered as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2014, Grayson’s bill states in relevant part:

“None of the funds… may be used to collect any information generated by a citizen of the United States while located in the United States… without probable cause….” 

“Probable cause” is a constitutional principle (Fourth Amendment) and implies the need for a warrant before the government rummages through your private things.

Unlike any other member of Congress so far, Grayson is proposing the radical notion that, if the government wants to break the law, at least we won’t have to pay them to do it.

Once You Build the Architecture of Oppression, Who Gets to Live in It? 

The larger point that has yet to take hold of public consciousness is that our government, through the NSA and other agencies, has created what Edward Snowden called the “architecture of oppression.”

The architecture of oppression is a phrase that often provokes immediate denial, in the form of a comment about this still being a free country, or saying that Americans are not oppressed.  True as that may be, that response misses the reality that an architecture of oppression, once in place, remains benign only as long as it is not widely used.

It’s not merely a question of whether Barack Obama can be trusted to spy on us responsibly.

It’s a question of whether it’s self-preserving, or even sane, to put in place an architecture of oppression that relies on the good faith of this and every future president to preserve anything like traditional American freedoms.

If the real Watergate burglaries of others weren’t OK, why should we even consider tolerating the government committing universal virtual burglaries of ourselves?

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.