Our Opinion: Government secrets diminish public trust

Monday July 22, 2013

Foster's Daily Democrat of Dover (N.H.), July 17, 2013

By now readers are aware government agencies are collecting wholesale data from their phone company, called metadata, which can reveal who you have been calling and when. Likewise for your email. Now comes a disturbing report from The New York Times that the United States Postal Service is cooperating with the government to do the same and even more.

From The Times:

"Leslie James Pickering noticed something odd in his mail last September: a handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home.

" ‘Show all mail to supv' -- supervisor -- ‘for copying before going out on the street,' read the card. It included Mr. Pickering's name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word ‘confidential' was highlighted in green."

The news report goes on to explain Pickering was targeted under an FBI program which asks postal officials to capture the information on the cover of letters coming from names on a hit list.

Pickering got on the list because, according to The Times, "more than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled ecoterrorists by the Federal Bureau of Investigation" -- a role he long ago abandoned

As the Times reports, Pickering was targeted by a longtime surveillance system called mail covers, a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States -- about 160 billion pieces last year.

And as with the government's tracking of phone calls and emails, the government claims to be keeping the information just in case.

By now such explanations are getting tired. It may be correct that government agents can't actually open or read any such correspondents without a search warrant. But these warrants are rarely denied by secret courts, which don't have to reveal such requests were even made.

Commenting during a recent hearing on the collection of phone records, Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, warned of the "rise of a system of secret law" being made by such courts which operate behind closed doors.

It is a system which hears only one side of the argument for a warrant, something one retired secret court judge called "one-sided" and "not a good thing."

That judge, James Robertson, went on to suggest the role of a devil's advocate be established -- someone allowed to argue against a warrant request to expand surveillance, even if done in secret.

Of course, as The Times reports, there are cases where the actions of these secret courts have saved lives. What remains unanswered, however, is whether there is another way. And, in addition, what has been the collateral damage done to law-abiding citizens who may have been caught up in such a wide drag net.

We understand and accept the need for some level of secrecy and surveillance in order to keep our nation secure. But we also know the history of a government that at times has kept too many secrets from its people.

We remember well the McCarthy Era. Lives were needlessly destroyed because of the Red Scare of the 1950s. There was Vietnam and what our government did not want us to know. Then came Watergate and President Nixon's enemies list. And later, under President Reagan, came the Iran-Contra scandal.

Just this past weekend news reports told us the government is keeping secret the final chapter of a study written many years ago tasked with determining what went wrong during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Why more than half a century later does the government need to keep secret anything surrounding that failed invasion is a mystery. What is being hidden? Who is being protected? What doesn't someone want us to know?

Of course, we would be remiss in not adding to this list Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks fame, and Edward Snowden, who is stuck in a Russian airport while threatening to tell the world more about spying by the U.S.government.

With all this is it any wonder "trust in federal government remains mired near a historic low," according to a Pew Research study -- something worth considering when our politicians coming knocking our door during the next election cycle.


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