Mukasey Misses the Mark on Defense of Nationwide Surveillance

Michael Mukasey, former US Attorney General, has written an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, defending the government’s nationwide surveillance operation.  Mukasey describes concern over the surveillance as “misdirected” and throws in a reference to Orwell’s 1984 for good measure.

The purpose, Mukasey says is to “permit analysts to map relationships between and among Islamist fanatics.” This is fine and well, but this isn’t a nation comprised of entirely of Islamist fanatics.  He offers the example that “it would be helpful to know who communicated with the Tsarnaev brothers, who those people were in touch with, and whether there are overlapping circles that would reveal others bent on killing and maiming Americans–sort of a terrorist Venn diagram.”

I’m sure that would be helpful, and I am fairly certain that information could have been obtained without spying on the entire country. It seems important to point out here, that we were notified by Russia about these characters only to have our own investigation turn up “nothing” on them.  Didn’t the government already have the brothers’ “metadata”? The bombing attacks were not stopped in any case.  Mukasey goes on to offer the Zazi case as a surveillance based success story, but even that “success” has been called into question. 

To claim that the government can be trusted with such information is undermined by the very recent scandals surrounding this administration. And, this is not limited to one administration or another, this is by its very nature, the problem with government.  The IRS targeted law abiding citizens for government-level scrutiny with all the unspoken threats surrounding an IRS investigation. The Department of Justice judge-shopped around until someone swallowed the claim that James Rosen was “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” with North Korea to get a hold of his communications.  So I beg to differ that it is “at least theoretically possible that information could be misused to the prejudice of innocent citizens.”  

Mukasey references the Fourth Amendment (unreasonable search and seizures and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.) He explains “Notice that the first clause does not forbid warrantless searches, only unreasonable ones. And the second simply creates a warrant requirement that is read, with some exceptions, to bar evidence at trial if it is obtained without a valid warrant.”

But what is reasonable about monitoring innocent people? Isn’t the standard that there be some pretense for scrutiny and investigation?  And while it may be comforting that this evidence gathering treasure chest can’t be used against you in a court of law without obtaining a proper warrant, there are certainly many things the federal government has the force and authority to do to a citizen that goes beyond imprisonment. They can seize your property, your money, remove your children from your home, let us not forget.   

We would all like to think that the government is keeping us safe from the “bad guys” but it’s impossible to persuasively argue that requires the government must keep an “eye” on us all to do that. By all means, keep watch over the shifty characters that live among us, but leave the rest of us alone.