Obama 'snoops' to conquer!


It is human nature to be curious about what someone else is talking, about yourself, anyone else or the world in general. This is called curiosity. It...

It is human nature to be curious about what someone else is talking, about yourself, anyone else or the world in general. This is called curiosity. It may have killed the cat but who among us would give up the chance to listen to a conversation not meant for our ears? Eavesdropping must be as old as human nature itself and continues to flourish.

The trouble arose when people in power listened to conversations they were not supposed to, in the name of 'national security' the most misused term in the world. Human nature is funny. It has invented processes so that people could talk to people in private; then it invented techniques to listen into these 'private' conversations. Most of the time, this kind of dirty work is done by governments, again under the guise of national security. People who ruled us believed there could be no 'ruling' without demolishing the myth of right to privacy. The government wanted to have all the information about all of us though in most cases such information was not worth a scrap. All over the world, governments set up agencies to read our mail, listen to our telephonic conversations.

Eavesdropping is as common in democracies as in dictatorships. Unfortunately, the worst and most extensive snooper in the world happens to be the US, the most powerful democracy in the world, even when it is ruled by a President who likes to present himself as a true liberal.

Over the past few weeks, President Barack Obama has been criss-crossing his country trying to convince his people that his administration's surveillance programme is not meant to intrude into the private lives of his people. Today, the surveillance programme is the most talked about issue in the country. American liberals who supported Obama are outraged and the rival Republicans are gleeful that the artificial glitter conferred on Obama has been washed away.

"We told you so, he is a fake liberal' they may be chortling. Obama's luster is fading fast, and if proper remedial action is not taken, he will end up a lame duck President for the rest of the term. This would be a huge blow to liberal America and the youth from many nations who expected so much more from him. So far the results have been disappointing. The government-sponsored organized snooping has shocked the people.

All this is open secret. Governments the world over tap telephones, intercept mail and tamper with email communication. Somehow, American Presidents have been obsessed with telephone tapping and listening to private conversations between people. The most notorious example was that of former President Richard Nixon who, during his tenure at the White House, taped every single bit of conversation he had with his colleagues, visitors, close aides and so on.

Why did he do it? Nixon was insecure and paranoid about secrecy and wanted 'private, personal conversations' from people he regarded as enemies so that he could protect himself from them. It was a bit of delicious irony that the discovery of the White House tapes swayed the Watergate investigation which succeeded in convincing courts there was nothing on national security on the tapes and they could be made public. And this was a stunning 9-0 verdict from what was generally regarded as a conservative Supreme Court.

Once the tapes were out, Nixon knew his goose was cooked and he resigned. Possession of confidential information, State and personal secrets made the State powerful. The US President was the most powerful man in the world and he began his daily routine with a 45-minute briefing on intelligence matters by the CIA Director. Whether all this had anything to do with national security was doubtful. Former President Lyndon Johnson demanded to be briefed on the sexual habits of many of his political rivals and the CIA and the FBI readily obliged.

Edgar Hoover, the powerful, perverted FBI chief for many years, saw nothing wrong in bugging even the bedrooms of 'troublesome' Americans like Dr Martin Luther King and listened to his love- making talk. Why only Dr King? Hoover spied on his own boss, John Kennedy, and recorded his passionate trysts with beautiful women, including Marilyn Monroe. Kennedy desperately wanted to sack Hoover but found himself unable to do so because of Hoover's blackmail threats.

Obama may not stoop to such levels. But snooping provides those in power with something to hit their opponents with below the belt. In the past, official snooping was justified on the grounds of checking the Communist threat. Today, it is the threat from global terrorism. It is true that governments have successfully tracked the movements of terrorists planning violent action and prevented it. But one is tempted to ask if mass snooping is justified even on this account.

America has some of the toughest laws on the invasion of privacy and its citizens are quick to go to court on this issue. Snooping is definitely an invasion of privacy. Several Nixon aides went to jail after Watergate because of their illegal snooping activities. The President tried to play it both ways and argued that just like 100 per cent security is not possible, so is 100 per cent privacy. But people have questioned the logic of focusing the snooping strategy more on liberals, the creative elements in American society and those who dissented against unpopular policies of the government.

It is disappointing that the President chose to appoint hardline Republicans to several top jobs in his administration. They viciously attacked his liberal views during the presidential campaign. But now as members of the administration, how qualified are they in implementing Obama's policies on sensitive issues? Is there such a shortage of liberals in the Democratic party that Obama had to look elsewhere?

The President has argued that his government struck the right balance in protecting the privacy of the people even while collecting secret information from society, in general. He assured the people that lawmakers from both parties as well as federal judges were aware that they should protect the interests of the people. If the government wanted to tap the telephone of a private citizen, it should obtain a written order from a federal judge. All this sounds good only on paper.

The judiciary and the executive have had their own biases and, as revealed during the Nixon days, often bent the law of the land to suit their own prejudices. Yes, the world does face major threats from terrorists and many of the accepted norms of a civilized society may have to go. The upper echelons of the Obama administration must act responsibly on the issue of privacy laws and harassment of innocent citizens.

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