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The Value of Government Surveillance of Citizens

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It’s amusing to watch U.S. officials protest the Chinese government’s surveillance of its own citizens. After all, isn’t it the U.S. government that secretly and illegally conspired with private telecom companies to record telephone conversations of private American citizens? And isn’t it the U.S. government that secured both civil and criminal immunity for the telecoms’ decision to sell out the privacy of their customers to the feds?

One of the aspects of the federal government’s telecom surveillance scheme that is rarely mentioned by the mainstream press goes to the heart of why government surveillance of its citizens is so valuable — to provide a means to keep the citizenry subdued and subservient through an subtle form of blackmail.

Prior to the NSA-telecom scandal, Americans had a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to their telephone conversations. They would feel free to talk about things with friends and relatives that they would never expect the authorities or the public to find out.

Some of the things discussed might be illegal in nature but other things might just be things that would be embarrassing if the public were to find out.

For example, conversations about the use or purchase of illicit drugs. Or married people having adulterous affairs. Or business people engaged in unethical conduct at work. Or hurtful gossip about friends and acquaintances.

The range of private communications that people would not want to be made public are endless — conversations that most everyone figured were private at the time they were taking place.

But little did everyone know, that wasn’t necessarily the case. As it turns out, the U.S. government, operating through the NSA in cooperation with U.S. telecoms, was secretly recording countless telephone conversations of countless Americans for an extended period of time. The recordings of those conversations are now in the permanent databases of the NSA and possibly other government agencies.

What better way to keep an entire populace subdued, subservient, and obedient? People who are now tempted to, say, join a Tea Party protest movement now have to factor in their deliberations the fact that the government potentially has some very incriminating or embarrassing information that it could use against them in retaliation.

How could the government use that type of information against someone? Simple — by simply leaking it to a favored journalist, who proceeds to share the gossip with others until it begins to percolate within society, in much the same way that U.S. officials ensured that people found out that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.

Would U.S. officials do something that dastardly?

Well, sure they would. After all, don’t forget that when Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio refused to go along with the illegal telecom surveillance scheme, the feds retaliated with an insider-trading prosecution against him. Why wouldn’t they retaliate against someone who wasn’t playing ball by simply leaking embarrassing information about him?

Let’s not forget what the feds did to Martin Luther King when he began shaking up the establishment. They secretly recorded his telephone conversations and then attempted to blackmail him into ceasing his civil-rights activities by threatening to release information about extramarital affairs that he was purportedly having.

Why did they believe that King was having such affairs? Their secret recordings of his telephone conversations provided them that information.

To his credit, King refused to succumb to the federal blackmail. But he paid a big price for it. The feds leaked the evidence they had acquired in their secret surveillance to some favored journalist stooges who then made the information public.

Would Americans who have had their private telephone conversations secretly and illegally recorded by the NSA respond like King did? Some would. But by the same token, there undoubtedly is a certain number of Americans who would say, “Not me. Count me out. I’m keeping my head down. I can’t afford to have my telephone conversations disclosed to my family, my company, or the public.”

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.