We've recently seen news stories about Obama's phone and email spying. An article at the Scientific American website also discusses how the government may spy on web communications either by using "backdoors" the government has had the web companies design into their sites - or by having the government take advantage of existing unintended vulnerabilities of a site (hack) to do their spying. Another Scientific American article tells us, the "Electronic Communications Privacy Act considers e-mail 'abandoned' and searchable if it's stored for more than 180 days on a server."
The government justifies such activies by throwing around the word "terrorist". Those of us familiar with the history of government spying can't help being skeptical. The US government has always spied on (and done more than spying) on social change activists, and always claimed it was protecting citizens from one threat or another. In the 1960's, the FBI not only spied on Martin Luther King Jr.'s political activities, but on his private life as well. And then it went further by trying to coerce him into dropping some activities - they attempted to blackmail him with threats of disclosing his marital infidelities. King was a non-violent activist trying to make reforms within the system - yet the government treated him as a "threat". Who, exactly, is not a "threat"?
So, just what does the government mean that its activities are only focused on and dealing with "terrorists"? Certainly, killing people and destroying property are serious crimes in the US. What requires separate, unique surveillance systems for "terrorists" as opposed to investigative methods used to find and respond to organized crime? Both commit such serious crimes, both are secretive organizations, both operate across national borders, both have existed for decades and have been hard to weed out, etc. If "terrorists" aren't dealt with as criminal organizations, are they dealt with in the same way as political organizations have been in the past (and perhaps in the present)? Might "terrorists" just be the part of the iceberg above the surface and political spying below the surface?
Consider how the alleged terrorists at Guantanamo have not had their day in court after 11 years. Amnesty International has in particular been promoting the case of one detainee. He has been technically cleared for release by the US and the UK has requested he be allowed to go there. Yet he remains in Guantanamo. The government is doing more than just finding genuine terrorists using phone and email data.
As long as the US government continues to insist it has the right to carry out such methods against those it classifies as posing a threat, we need to ask what is a threat. Most economists believe that our economic crisis would have been much worse if the government had not intervened in the economy - bailing out Wall Street, having stimulus programs, providing unemployment benefits, etc. Without these, we would presumably be in another Great Depression. Libertarians would have carried out the policies which would have led to that Depression. Does that mean libertarians pose a threat to our country and the US government should use the same methods against them that they use against "terrorists"? Or look at it the other way. Conservatives claim that Obama's economic policies were responsible for the severity of the crisis. Does that mean advocates of the economic policies Obama used are a threat? Should a conservative government use anti-terrorist methods against supporters of those policies? Are the banks that initiated the crisis a "threat"?
If terrorists are such a threat that so many of the usual legal rules don't apply, how much of a "threat" is posed by pacifists who call for large cuts in the Pentagon budget? How many of the special rules then apply to pacifists? How much of a "threat" is posed by journalists who expose the government's spying programs? Does the spying on journalists that we know of extend to the special rules for spying on terrorists? How much of a "threat" is posed by civil libertarians who advocate for the Guantanamo detainees and for limitations on spying programs?
We've seen serious police actions against Occupy Wall Street, and against the protesters who recently demanded prosecution of bankers and protection from foreclosures. How much of a "threat" is posed by those who use non-violent civil disobedience?
There's not only a certain internal logic / dynamic to the government's programs, there's also the history of abuses we know about.
Do we have more reason to believe this indicates the government is presently spying on social change activists or will be? The secrecy of the program justifies suspicion. The government claims secrecy was important (and those who made the spying public may deserve punishment) because knowledge of the spying programs' checking of phone and internet data could lead terrorists to use other methods of communication the government can't access. Various objections to this explanation have been raised. If terrorists stop using phones, email and web communications, will they use the Pony Express? Government agents (and others) are always spying on phone and internet communications in TV shows, movies and books - how can we believe terrorists didn't already know the government could spy on such things? The government's explanation for secrecy doesn't hold water. So it's reasonable to ask what the real explanation is. Perhaps, government spy agencies are so entangled in their own tunnel vision that they believe their explanation. But if they can deceive themselves so thoroughly on this, they are just as likely to deceive themselves into believing they must spy on social change activists.
We know secret programs have abused their powers in the past. Should we expect the government to stop itslef from abusing these spying programs? Ask yourself: Of all the past abuses we have learned of, how many were caught by the government and those guilty of the abuses prosecuted? How many of those abuses only became known because of journalists, whistleblowers and such - who were treated as troublemakers by the government?