Who will watch the watchmen?
Who will watch the watchmen? Plato posed the question, but
it is just as important today as it was 2,400 years ago. Power
has to be kept in check, as the founders of our country knew
when they designed a system of checks and balances in the U.S.
Constitution. Any agency that has the power to protect us from
enemies also has the power to do us great harm. Police must be
able to search for evidence if they are to catch terrorists or
other criminals, but when police can get access to information
about us too easily, they regularly abuse their power. It is
vital to protect citizens from police intrusion. In the United
States we do this by requiring the police to go to court and
obtain a search warrant.
Today the security forces want approval to seize credit card
information from Internet sites without a court order; they want
permission to record what URLs you look at without a court order
- which can tell them such information as what books you have
bought. There is already no difficulty getting a court to approve
a search warrant when there is credible evidence of a terrorist
plot, and so they can already investigate terrorists without
this change. Whenever police ask to be allowed to bypass search
warrants, we must be on guard.
We depend on the FBI to investigate suspected terrorists, but
who else will it investigate? Most likely it will be any real
political opposition, since the FBI has a long history of investigating
dissidents purely for their political views. Martin Luther King
Jr.'s phone was tapped; his life-long commitment to non-violence
apparently was not enough reason to consider him non-threatening.
More recently in the cyberworld, the FBI investigated John Gilmore,
founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as a criminal
suspect based on no evidence except his political views.
Terrorists often set up organizations to carry out their work
or raise funds, and it makes sense to pursue those organizations
and prohibit contribution to them. Yet, we must be very careful
about how organizations are designated as "terrorist,"
because we know from experience that the FBI will hardly be reasonable
about it. The FBI has infiltrated and targeted many peaceful
political groups. In the 1980s, while the United States supported
a regime in El Salvador that killed tens of thousands of opposition
activists, the FBI burglarized the office of Committee In Support
of the People of El Salvador (CISPES) rather than ask for a search
warrant to investigate.
Will the FBI stick to reason in deciding what is a "terrorist
group?" Not if recent experience is any guide. On May 10,
2001, for example, FBI director Louis Freeh, while testifying
to Congress on the "threat of terrorism to the United States",
listed the group 'Reclaim the Streets' as a terrorist threat.
In truth, 'Reclaim the Streets' sets up surprise street parties
where people play music and dance. It is described in the book
No Logo by Naomi Klein as one of the new forms of protest against
global brand-dominated culture. No person has ever been killed
or wounded by 'Reclaim the Streets.' Can't the FBI distinguish
between dancing and murder?
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has asked for the power to
deport any non-citizen, or imprison him indefinitely, on mere
suspicion of involvement with terrorism and without even having
to go before a judge. This would deny visitors and immigrants
to our country the most basic legal right, the right to a fair
trial when accused of a crime. It would put the United States
on a level with any brutal police state. The United Kingdom government
has already announced plans for similar measures, and we cannot
take for granted that the United States will not follow.
Another way the watchmen can threaten our freedom is by keeping
us in the dark about what the government is doing. There are
good reasons to keep secrets about intelligence- gathering methods.
If enemies find out how their plans are being observed, they
can take countermeasures. However, the U.S. government also has
a long tradition of keeping secrets from the American public
to conceal its mistakes or its mistreatment of people and land.
The 1960s blockbuster book, The Pentagon Papers, showed that
the Department of Defense knew that what it was telling the public
about the Vietnam War was false. The public found out because
a heroic whistle-blower, Daniel Ellsberg, released a copy of
these papers to the New York Times newspaper.
Therefore, when we see proposals for laws to prevent leaks by
punishing whistle-blowers, we should check them very carefully
and make sure we won't be giving our public servants carte blanche
to thumb their noses at us. If a FBI agent asks for our cooperation,
what should we do?
The FBI investigates and arrests terrorists. If the FBI were
investigating a plot to hijack planes, I would want to help all
I could. But the same FBI arrested Dmitry Sklyarov for allegedly
developing a software program that Americans can use to escape
from the shackles of Adobe e-books. No one should cooperate with
an investigation of that kind of "crime." If you don't
know whether a policeman is looking to arrest a person for murder
or for smoking a joint, how can you determine what right conduct
If the United States wants to obtain full cooperation for the
FBI and other police from all Americans, it should begin now
to abolish laws that shackle and harm Americans. Congress should
begin this effort to regain public confidence in authority by
repealing the prohibition of certain drugs.
Prohibition of drugs is especially destructive to our communities
now because, in addition to imprisoning a million Americans who
would otherwise contribute to the strength of our country, it
helps subsidize terrorism on all sides. Prohibition makes illegal
drugs so profitable that various terrorist groups (including,
reportedly, bin Laden's) get substantial funding by trading in
them. Thus, self-defeating U.S. drug policy has become a vulnerability
we cannot afford.
Over decades, external and internal enemies come and go. Sometimes
the government protects us from danger; sometimes it is the danger.
Whenever there is a proposal to increase government surveillance
power, we must not judge it solely in terms of the situation
of the moment, but also in terms of the whole range of situations
that we have faced and will face again. We must use the government
for our protection, but we must never stop protecting ourselves
In the United States, we have developed a system of institutions
to watch the watchmen. Judges watch them in some ways; the public
watches them in other ways. For our safety, we must keep this
system functioning. When the watchmen are really working for
us, they can afford to let us check their work. When they ask
us to stop checking, we must say no, as is our right, obligation
and duty as American citizens.
© 2001 Richard Stallman -Verbatim copying and distribution
of this entire article are permitted in any medium provided the
copyright notice and this notice are preserved.