Monitoring calls is boring, un-American |

Monitoring calls is boring, un-American

What if big brother is right? What if monitoring Americans’ phone calls, studying patterns in calls, listening in on calls to people of suspicious character or national origin … prevents terrorist attacks? If what they say is true, then we have something to talk about.

The National Security Agency, a government entity that didn’t officially exist until relatively recently, has defended the practice as necessary, going as far as to say it may have given us warning prior to the 9-11 attacks. The issue of big brother listening to phone calls first surfaced four months ago, in a New York Times piece that revealed Americans’ calls were monitored without warrants. The calls were made to suspicious foreigners from places that don’t like us, so there was an argument that could be made … Last week, USA Today reported the NSA requested the telephone account information of millions of people – Bush says the agency isn’t using the data to study patterns, but why else would they want it?

At what point does this government oversight start to get uncomfortable?

Listening in on Americans’ phone conversations without court permission was one thing. You could argue that bureaucracy was getting in the way of surveillance, so the spooks needed a way around it, etc., etc. But this is wholly different. Most of us are not consorting with known or suspected terrorists. We’re actually having boring conversations, like the following:

Husband: I’m going to Costco.

Wife: Why?

Husband: No reason.

Wife: OK.

Husband: You want anything?

Wife: Are you planning on buying anything?

Husband: No.

Wife: Then don’t bother waiting in line for me.

Husband: OK, bye.

Wife: Bye.

Then he buys a flatscreen television. Pretty boring stuff. The type of stuff I would not want to bother with if I went to Yale, got recruited by the NSA, graduated spy school, and then was assigned to monitor calls to and from St. Paul, Minn.

The pro-government surveillance folks (who never thought they’d be considered “pro-government” when they voted for Reagan) will argue this is how it is done. This is how attacks are thwarted, and catastrophe and death is prevented. And if they are right, then it is a reasonable argument.

But not in the United States.

In the U.S., government should not operate like that. Let’s let China be the shining beacon of pro-government mandate and institutionalized inhumaneness. We use words like “freedom” and “democracy” and “assembly” because they mean something. And it’s not just that Americans value privacy as a human right. It means government is accountable to the people, not the other way around.

A government program that would endorse spying on Americans without cause is the beginning of the dissolution of the American ideal. We don’t have to answer for our telephone calls to people, our behaviors that are not illegal, or how we choose to use our freedoms. If government is allowed and encouraged to monitor citizens’ phone records without cause, then how far are we from having to explain why we are making calls, or even asking permission to make calls?

In China, a recent flap over the use of the Internet among the Chinese illustrates the folly of going down this road. Companies like Google and Yahoo are asked by Big Red to allow government controls so the people don’t have access to the ideals that would compromise communist rule. The government is wrong on human rights and democracy and world politics, so instead of changing the government, the government is trying to change the people.

In America, we embrace our rights to change our government. Effectively, we get to do it every couple years. When the power is taken away from us, and put into the hands of the government, how long is it before we are not America – or at least the ideal of America – anymore? How far away are we from China?

Indeed, monitoring phone calls may be a way to prevent terrorist attacks – the pro-government folks might be right about that – but it shouldn’t be our way. It’s not the American way.

– Jim Scripps, managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, can be reached at

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