As you know, those of us living in Montana are very lucky. We are surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, our fellow citizens are renowned for their kindness to strangers and each other, and we enjoy all the benefits of our proximity to world-class rivers, large tracts of wilderness, and healthy, functioning ecosystems that support abundant wildlife—all of which bring joy to our hearts. Really, given what we already have, it seems churlish to ask for more. But the latest news from Washington, D.C., about the federal government secretly spying on its own citizens has dumped a bucket of cold water on the contented happiness of our holidays.
Now Santa, we all know the song about how you see us when we’re sleeping and know if we’ve been naughty or nice. After all, you’re the guy who keeps a list and checks it twice, and then comes down the chimney and, depending on their behavior, brings little boys and girls either gifts or switches and chunks of coal. But this is entirely different.
No doubt you get great satellite reception at the North Pole (or at least what global warming has left of it) and you probably saw the news about President Bush having slipped into the bad old ways of the past and secretly telling the National Security Agency that it’s okay to spy on American citizens without telling anyone or receiving a warrant from the courts or even having any positive evidence that someone might be involved in something other than our good old-fashioned, Constitutionally-protected right to disagree—through protest and peaceable assembly—the actions of our own government.
Since you’re rumored to be pretty close to omniscient, you probably recall when all this happened about 35 years ago during the Vietnam War. At that time, another power-crazed ruler sat in the president’s office, lied to the people about how well we were doing in the war, and secretly sent federal agents out to infiltrate antiwar groups, disrupt demonstrations, tap phone lines and harass those who, as it turned out, were right about ending the war. You’ll most likely remember what happened to that president, too—he got impeached and driven from office in a storm of shame with nothing but coal and switches in his stocking.
Because of those despicable actions, way back in the ’70s the U.S. Congress set up strict guidelines to protect Americans from presidents who would turn the enormous power of the federal government against our own people. Were there cases where domestic surveillance might be necessary? Why sure, after all there are dangerous people in the world, and from time to time it’s necessary to keep an eye on them. For those cases, the federal spy agencies need simply present their evidence to a judge and explain why certain individuals should have their phones tapped, their movements followed, or their homes searched. Out of 18,748 such requests made since 1978, only five times has the court refused to grant the warrants through the long succession of presidents that have held office since then.
But something happened, Santa, and we’re not really sure just how it all came about. Back in 2001 some mostly Saudi hijackers took over a few planes and flew them into some buildings. The trauma took the nation, which was drowsy from a long binge of consumption, by surprise. Congress, which had become a collection of fatted calves, mooed in alarm, voted in unison without reading the bills, and handed enormous power to a president who, only a year earlier, had been appointed, not elected, to his position because the nation was too busy to take the time to count the votes. In their fear and fervor, Congress simply thought it was helping protect the nation. But as it turns out, thanks to those actions, thousands and perhaps millions of Americans are now being spied on by their own government.
Things are not what they were in the ’70s, Santa. Hardly anyone writes letters anymore. Instead, it’s all cell phones and e-mail—and just about everyone has a computer stacked up with personal communications and confidential information. It’s really tough these days to find a house where “nothing is stirring, not even a mouse.” Everyone is clicking away and traveling to websites around the world for news and information—and every click, every e-mail and every website is being monitored and stored in federal computers. All you have to do is write an e-mail to a friend telling them you got “bombed” at a Christmas party and that e-mail may be flagged, saved, and inspected without your permission or knowledge by the spooks who run the spy agencies because it has the word “bombed” in it.
The excuse for all this spying is that there are terrorists in the world. But there have always been terrorists in the world, so that’s not really anything new. It’s just a handy excuse for those who would abuse their power and position, as President Bush is doing, to shred our Constitutional protections for civil liberties—and boy, is he shredding them fast!
If you get a chance, Santa, take a look at the list of activities the Bush administration has found of such concern that it has loosed federal spy agencies against American citizens. You can get the list online at http://msnbc.msn.com/id/ 10454316/—and even an old list-keeper like you might be surprised. Far and away, most of the activities the NSA spooks found so worthy of surveillance were people protesting military recruiters at college campuses, protesting nuclear weapons, or even just putting out antiwar postcards. And that’s just one database.
As you can see, Santa, thanks to George Bush we’re in a helluva mess this holiday season. So you don’t have to bring me any toys or goodies—all this Montanan wants for Christmas is the return of my civil liberties.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.