The true significance of Bush's no-warrant domestic eavesdropping

by John Spritzler
December 31, 2005


Left and establishment pundits have treated the recent revelations about Bush's no-warrant domestic eavesdropping as if the right-wing Bush had been caught red-handed and exposed by his arch-enemy--the liberal New York Times.

I'm not so sure.

I suspect that the ruling elite (from right wingers like Bush to the liberals running the New York Times) are in cahoots. They both want Americans to be easier to control, and they both know that a good way to do this is to make the most disgruntled and politically sophisticated Americans fearful of speaking their minds openly during telephone conversations or anywhere else they might be bugged.

Now how do you make Americans fearful like this? Do you have the President give a speech? "My fellow Americans. Be afraid. Be very afraid, because I'm listening in on all of your conversations, and don't you forget it!"

This would certainly create widespread fear, but at the cost, obviously, of undermining the government's legitimacy in the eyes of the general public.

The actual Bush/NYT ploy, with its dramatic "leaks" and "investigations," that has unfolded in the last couple of weeks, however, gets the job done with minimal cost. The rulers are counting on the fact that politically sophisticated and disgruntled Americans will put 2 and 2 together and conclude that the reason Bush didn't ask for warrants to bug phone conversations, even though he could easily have obtained the necessary warrants, is because he was actually bugging virtually everybody, and asking for that many warrants would have revealed it. So, the selected Americans whom the rulers want to frighten into self-censorship, get the point and clam up. The remaining Americans perceive the whole affair merely as an interesting disagreement between Bush and the liberals over how to regulate the bugging of potential terrorists, and do not feel personally fearful about the government spying on themselves.

The point of the domestic eavesdropping was probably never about spying on terrorists in the first place. Real terrorists know how to use random pay-phones and speech codes to avoid being located or having their conversation red-flagged by some computer program. And if 9/11 was an inside job, as accumulating evidence seems to suggest, then the real terrorists are the people carrying out the phone bugging, which means the purpose of the bugging is to make us fearful, not actually to catch anybody.

The real question for us, then, is whether we will self-censor our conversations (on the phone, on-line, in the laundromat?) out of fear of government eavesdropping, or not. I urge you not to self-censor. There is strength in our numbers and our solidarity when we continue to speak our minds openly. While we lack the kind of power Bush and company wield, we have another kind of power which we should exercise. We can force the government to make a difficult "lose lose" decision. We can let the government know that it cannot simultaneously silence us, and enjoy legitimacy as the defender of freedom in the eyes of the general public: it can only do one at the cost of the other.


John Spritzler is the author of The People As Enemy: The Leaders' Hidden Agenda In World War II, and a Research Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.


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