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
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.
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.
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
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
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 would be?
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
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.
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 from it.
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
© 2001 Richard Stallman -Verbatim copying and
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