Dutch explorer and author Arthur Wichmann summed up the history of bungled exploration attempts of New Guinea with the phrase “Nothing learned, everything forgotten.”
I find myself thinking of this phrase in light of the revelations that the Department of Justice (DoJ) asked for, and got, two-months of phone and data records for Associated Press reporters. DoJ apparently asked for the data because it wanted to find the source of a leak that the Administration foiled an Al-Qeda plot. According to sources, the AP apparently sat on the story for several days to protect the lives of U.S. agents, but balked at further delay so the Administration could break the news itself in a press conference. AP accuses the DoJ of abusing its surveillance powers to punish AP for raining on its parade. Verizon apparently turned over the information with nary a quiver or question.
The Administration denies any knowledge of DoJ’s actions, it also denies any comparisons to Nixon, saying: “People who make these kinds of comparisons need to check their history.”
Actually, a bunch of us do and did. Which is why I say “nothing learned, everything forgotten.”
Why Is Associated Press Surprised?
I will confess, my outrage in this one is just utterly overwhelmed by my sense of Cassandrafreude. This was not only the predictable result of the decision to immunize telephone companies for their role in helping NSA with massive domestic wiretapping after 9/11, it was the outcome I predicted. Specifically, in this 2007 blog post “So Much For All That ‘We Are A Nation of Laws’ Stuff . . .“, I argued that the critical lesson of Watergate was the need to reenforce a healthy respect for the rule of law. Immunizing telephone companies for violating the law to help NSA (let alone thanking them, as Rep. Lamar “I wasn’t that big on the Constitution even before SOPA” Smith suggested) sent a clear message to the telcos and Executive Agencies alike: do what you want, because Congress has your back.
I also predicted that, if a new scandal of abuse of this power broke while a Democrat was President, Republicans would totally forget their militant support for such abuses under Bush and would be shocked — SHOCKED — that any President could allow such an erosion of our freedom.
The Associated Press, and other branches of the media for that matter, proceeded to sleep-walk through this process of erosion of our freedom as if they never imagined it could bite them in the ass as well. Coverage of the retroactive immunity granted telecoms in 2008 for their roll in assisting NSA, the ongoing debate around the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), and everything in between has produced scarcely a wrinkle in the popular mainstream media. When it is covered, it’s covered with less depth and urgency than the debate over whether J.J. Abrams or Baz Luhrmann are being faithful to their original source material.
White House spokesman Jay Carney is right that we should learn our history here before making comparisons. We need to remember the reasons we had laws to make this sort of domestic spying illegal and tried to cultivate a culture to make it shocking that our government would attempt such an abuse of authority and unthinkable that companies would cooperate. We should not be surprised that when we fail, we see government engaged in the same abuse of power and the corporations that are dependent on the government for largess obsequiously obeying.
I will close as I closed in my blog post of almost 5 years ago:
“If Congress retroactively grants immunity, it will be one more blow against the respect of the rule of law. Not a fatal blow to be sure. Our Constitution and system of government have weathered such storms in the past. But a severe blow nonetheless. Congress will send a signal to the corporations that control the vital services on which we all depend, and to which we must entrust our private information, that they may safely collude with the Executive branch to break the law. Because a complaint Congress and a strong Executive will make it all right later. Yet these are the very companies into which we must most carefully inculcate the respect for the rule of law, because they have access to our most personal information and we have no way of discovering when our rights are violated.
“Congress will also send a message to us. We will learn that our rights must yield to the interests of the President and the Powerful when they work together in the name of national security. That we must accustom ourselves to such violations in the “post-9/11 world.” And while powerful Democrats, brought within the inner circle by the crumbs of information the Administration grudgingly shares, may not go as far as Rep. Lamar Smith in saying we should thank the telephone companies for preferring the illegal demands of the President to the rule of law, we shall be taught to sympathize with them rather than hold them accountable for their choices. And we shall know that, when faced with similar choices in the future, they and every other industry will chose to honor the demands of the Executive rather than honor the demands of the rule of law.”
Will we again play out Arthur Wichmann’s dictum: “Nothing learned, and everything forgotten?”
Stay tuned . . .