Free Inquiry and the Unblinking Eye

Nat Hentoff

In 1970, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark warned: “If we create today traditions of spying on people, the time may not be too far distant when a person can hardly speak his mind to any other person witho ut being afraid that the police or someone else will hear what he says and therefore know what he thinks. Because of our numbers and the density of our society, it will be difficult enough in the future for us to secure some little sense of privacy and individual integrity.”

At present, the United States hardly resembles Putin’s Russia or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, but another discordant chord in Ramsey Clark’s prophecy is increasingly relevant if the next generation of Americans becomes even more accustomed to living in a surveillance society. Said Clark: “We can trap ourselves, we can become the victims of our technology, and we can change the meaning of man as an individual.”

On December 30, 2007, the International Herald Tribune, reporting from London, quoted Simon Davies, director of Privacy International: “The general trend is that privacy is being extinguished in country after country.” And, added the Herald Tribune, “Both Britain and the United States fell into the lowest-performing group of ‘endemic surveillance societies.’”

On December 28, on the Web site of the Vermont newspaper The Brattleboro Reformer, there was a debate among readers about whether enough citizens were sufficiently concerned with diminishing privacy to do anything about it. Said “David” (no last name): “There is no outrage . . . no one is paying attention in any meaningful way.”

Another reader responded, anonymously: “Many of us who are outraged will not protest because . . . your photo, your name, your license number and Social Security number will all be filed by your local police . . . and made available to the FBI and Homeland Security. That information will put you, at least, on a ‘no fly list,’ and at worst, be available in a background check by a potential employer. Tried to get a job interview that doesn’t include one of those lately? Good luck.”

Evidence that George Orwell was no hyperbolic alarmist keeps mounting. The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima is an especially valuable canary in the coal mine, as she works the surveillance beat. On December 22, her story was headlined: “FBI Prepares Vast Data Base of Biometrics.” The report began: “The FBI is embarking on a $1 billion effort to build the world’s largest computer database of peoples’ physical characteristics, a project that would give the government unprecedented abilities to identify individuals in the United States and abroad. . . . In the coming years, law enforcement authorities around the world will be able to rely on iris patterns, face-shape data, scars and perhaps even the unique ways people walk and talk, to solve crimes and identify criminals and terrorists.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will not abandon traditional tracking. “The FBI, Nakashima continued, “will also retain, upon request by employers, the fingerprints of employees who have undergone criminal background checks so the employers can be notified if employees have brushes with the law.”

Already, she notes: “A request reaches an FBI server every second from somewhere in the United States or Canada, comparing a set of digital fingerprints against the FBI’s data base of 55 million sets of electronic fingerprints. A possible match is made—or ruled out—as many as 100,000 times a day.”

Children are not likely to read or otherwise know about the government’s unblinking eye, but more of them are being conditioned to accept continually being watched.

John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute in Virginia is another ever-alert canary in the coal mine through his regular radio broadcasts and other commentaries. Last November 28, he reported that “Viewmont High School in Utah recently installed 36 cameras to provide school officials a bird’s eye view of every square inch of the school’s hallways and common areas.” And “schools in Demarest, New Jersey, have installed surveillance cameras with live feeds to police headquarters.”

So far as I can tell, there has been little protest from parents of those schoolchildren or even from teachers’ unions about this nonstop surveillance.

Several years ago, in the Boston Phoenix, Dan Kennedy, then that weekly’s incisive press critic, wrote that for more of us, the occasional uneasy sense is “not that you’re being watched. It’s that you might be, and that you have no way of knowing whether you are or not.”

In time, even that intermittent disquietude could largely disappear as organized and free-standing terrorism continues around the world and as U.S. administrations of either political party move to spur even more advanced surveillance technology to guard us against enemies within.

Five years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, speaking in New York before an audience of women lawyers, said: “On important issues, like the balance between liberty and security, if the public doesn’t speak out, the security side is going to overweigh the other.”

But Justice Ginsburg is part of a civil-liberties minority on the Roberts-Alito Supreme Court. During seemingly endless presidential campaigns, the future composition of the Supreme Court appeared to concern only some of the more conservative candidates, such as Rudy Giuliani, hardly a civil libertarian. (He has since dropped out of the race.) The Democratic aspirants have not commented on this subject. And John McCain is delighted with the fact that John Roberts and Samuel Alito are on the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, in the Democratically controlled Congress, as the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative director, Caroline Frederickson, observes, “The Democrats seem constantly worried. Every time the president mentions the word terrorism—they all fall down and roll over.”

Not all the Democrats, but the leadership—Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi—has indeed been accurately described by Frederickson. And rank-and-file Democrats also succumbed to fear of being targeted as “soft” on terrorism last October, when the House voted 404 to 6 to pass the Democratic-sponsored “Prevention of Violent Radicalism and Homegrown Terrorism” bill (H.R. 1955).

During this writing, the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, chaired by Senator Joseph Lieberman, was considering this measure that sets up a ten-member investigation commission to conduct research, including holding hearings, on the extent of “homegrown terrorists” in our midst. The bill defines a “homegrown terrorist” as someone who “intimidates or coerces the United States government, the civilian population or any segment thereof, in furtherance of a political or social belief.” So much for mass demonstrations on environmental or civil-rights issues.

Among these “terrorist” suspects are what the bill designates as “violent radicals” who “promote extremist belief systems for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change.” The terms extremist, facilitate, and political, religious, or social change are broad and vague enough to have quickened the blood of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

I was told by a source involved with the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee that this Prevention of Viole
nt Radicalism and Homegrown Terrorism bill will be substantially revised before it reaches the Senate floor. Fortunately, a conference committee has killed the bill—for the time being. But staying in what some may call my “extremist” mind is that 404 members of the House of Representatives did indeed vote for this probe into our thoughts! Good luck to us free inquirers.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a United Media syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2004). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010).


In 1970, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark warned: “If we create today traditions of spying on people, the time may not be too far distant when a person can hardly speak his mind to any other person witho ut being afraid that the police or someone else will hear what he says and therefore know …

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