WASHINGTON - President Bush has assured Americans that their government isn't spying on them, but history explains why many remain uneasy about this week's news that their phone records have been turned over to federal agents.
The government has a long track record of abusing personal information that's gathered in the name of national security. From the Red Scare in the 1920s to illegal wiretaps during the Nixon era, Americans have struggled to find the right balance between individual rights and collective security.
In time of crisis, the government will exercise its power to conduct domestic intelligence activities to the fullest extent. The distinction between legal dissent and criminal conduct is easily forgotten. In an era where the technological capability of government relentlessly increases, we must be wary about the drift toward `big brother government.'
US Senate's 'Church Committee'
"The potential for abuse is awesome," a Senate investigation committee concluded in a 1976 report detailing illegal wiretaps, break-ins and other abuses that government agents committed in the 1960s and `70s.
The Senate panel, known as the "Church committee" after its chairman, Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, warned that technological advances would make it even harder for the government to stay within acceptable limits of respecting privacy rights, especially when the nation is at risk of attack.
"In time of crisis, the government will exercise its power to conduct domestic intelligence activities to the fullest extent. The distinction between legal dissent and criminal conduct is easily forgotten," the committee wrote. "In an era where the technological capability of government relentlessly increases, we must be wary about the drift toward `big brother government.'''
The government has been collecting and storing information on its citizens since at least 1912, when the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner to the FBI, recruited waiters, socialites and other well-placed individuals to eavesdrop on conversations and report any suspicious talk.
By the Red Scare in the 1920s, when the government made large-scale arrests of radicals and leftists in the wake of communists taking power in Russia, the bureau had assembled a rapidly expanding database of more than 150,000 names.
Abuses over the years cross party lines and political ideologies. Franklin Roosevelt wanted a file on Americans who sent him critical telegrams. Lyndon Johnson asked the FBI to get him the phone records of Republican vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy, remembered today as a champion of the underdog, approved wiretaps on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Nearly every recent president has ordered questionable "name checks" - a search of FBI files for any damaging information - on political opponents.
During the Nixon administration, a name check on journalist Daniel Schorr backfired when the FBI misunderstood its instructions and conducted a full background investigation, including interviews with Schorr's associates. White House officials, desperate for a cover story to explain the FBI probe, made the improbable claim that Schorr had been under consideration for a government appointment.
The Church committee concluded that few politicians can resist the chance to gather information on their enemies, and few intelligence-gatherers can resist pressure to please the president. There has been no evidence so far that any phone records the government has collected recently in its search for terrorists have been misused, but that's small comfort to civil libertarians.
"It's about human failings, human failings amplified by technology," said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group. "Men are not angels. Our Constitution was written by people who understood that human nature has many flaws."
In some cases, intelligence-gatherers try to use the information they collect against their enemies. In one of the most notorious examples, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover launched a campaign to discredit King that included an attempt to get him to commit suicide.
After gathering evidence of King's extramarital affairs, the agency sent a compilation of incriminating audiotapes to King's wife and sent him a note suggesting that he take his own life.
"King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. ... You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy fraudulent self is bared to the nation," the note said.
Bush's defenders say the current controversy bears no resemblance to past abuses and is being blown out of proportion.
"Let's talk about this in a rational way. We're in a war with terror and there are people out there that want to kill us," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "I don't think this action is nearly as troublesome as it's being made out. They're not tapping our phones and getting our conversations."
The government is using the phone records for data mining, the process of searching through a large volume of information to find useful patterns, in this case, evidence of terrorist communications.
"The problem isn't data mining. It's the people who do it," said Daniel Larose, a statistics professor at Central Connecticut State University and the author of "Data Mining Methods and Models." "It's easy to do badly. Humans tend to see patterns where no patterns exist. They might classify someone as suspicious who doesn't deserve suspicion."
Larose, who has written two other books on the subject, said data mining was like a knife. "You can use it to cut your birthday cake," he said. Or "you can use it to murder somebody in an alley."
© Copyright 2006 Knight Ridder