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Who will watch the watchmen?

-- Richard Stallman, October 2001

[ English | Spanish ]

Who will watch the watchmen? The question was first posed in Latin, but it is just as important today as it was 2,000 years ago. Power has to be kept in check, as the founders of our country knew when they designed a system of checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution. Any agency that has the power to protect us from enemies also has the power to do us great harm.

Police must be able to search for evidence, if they are to catch terrorists or other criminals. But when police can get access to information about us too easily, they regularly abuse their power. (See "Cops tap database to harass, intimidate.") It is vital to protect citizens from police intrusion. In the United States, we do this by requiring the police to go to court and obtain a search warrant.

Today the security forces want to be allowed to seize credit card information from Internet sites without a court order; they want to be able to record what URLs you look at without a court order, which can tell them such information as what books you have bought. There will be no difficulty getting a court to approve a search warrant when there is credible evidence of a terrorist plot, so they can investigate terrorists without this change. Whenever police ask to be allowed to bypass search warrants, we must be on guard.

We depend on the FBI to investigate suspected terrorists, but who else will it investigate? Probably any real political opposition, since the FBI has a long history of investigating dissidents purely for their political views. Martin Luther King Jr.'s phone was tapped; his life-long commitment to non-violence apparently was not enough reason to consider him non-threatening. More recently, John Gilmore, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was investigated by the FBI as a criminal suspect based on no evidence except his political views.

Terrorists often set up organizations to carry out their work or raise funds, and it makes sense to pursue those organizations, and prohibit contribution to them. But we must be very careful about how organizations are designated as terrorist, because we know the FBI won't be reasonable about it. The FBI has infiltrated and targeted many peaceful political groups -- in the '80s, while the United States supported a regime in El Salvador that killed tens of thousands of opposition activists, the FBI burglarized the office of CISPES rather than ask for a search warrant to investigate.

Will the FBI stick to reason in deciding what is a "terrorist group?" Not if recent experience is any guide. On May 10, 2001, FBI director Louis Freeh testifying to Congress on the "threat of terrorism to the United States" listed Reclaim the Streets as a terrorist threat. Reclaim the Streets sets up surprise street parties, where people play music and dance. It is described in the book No Logo, by Naomi Klein, as one of the new forms of protest against global brand-dominated culture. No person has ever been killed or wounded by Reclaim the Streets. Can't the FBI distinguish between dancing and murder?

U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft has asked for the power to deport any non-citizen, or imprison him indefinitely, on mere suspicion of involvement with terrorism, without even going to court. This would deny visitors and immigrants to our country the most basic legal right, the right to a fair trial when accused of a crime. It would put the United States on a level with every police state. The U.K. government has already announced plans for similar measures; we cannot take for granted that the United States will not follow.

Another way the watchmen can threaten our freedom is by keeping us in the dark about what the government is doing.

There are good reasons to keep secrets about intelligence-gathering methods. If enemies find out how their plans are being observed, they can take countermeasures. But the U.S. government also has a long tradition of keeping secrets from the American public to conceal its mistakes or its mistreatment of the public. In the 1960s, the Pentagon Papers showed that the Department of Defense knew that what it was telling the public about the Vietnam War was false. The public found out because a heroic whistle-blower, Daniel Ellsberg, released a copy of these papers to the New York Times.

So when we see proposals for laws to prevent leaks by punishing whistle-blowers, we should check them very carefully and make sure we won't be giving our public servants carte blanche to thumb their noses at us.

If an FBI agent asks for our cooperation, what should we do? The FBI investigates and arrest terrorists. If the FBI were investigating a plot to hijack planes, I would want to help all I could. But the same FBI arrested Dmitry Sklyarov for allegedly developing a program that Americans can use to escape from the shackles of Adobe e-books. No one should cooperate with an investigation of that kind of "crime." If you don't know whether a policeman is looking to arrest a person for murder or for smoking a joint, how can you determine what right conduct would be?

If the United States wants to obtain full cooperation for the FBI and the police from all Americans, it should abolish laws that shackle and harm Americans. Congress should repeal the DMCA, and the prohibition of certain drugs.

Prohibition of drugs is especially self-destructive now, because in addition to imprisoning a million Americans who would otherwise contribute to the strength of our country, it subsidizes terrorism. Prohibition makes illegal drugs so profitable that various terrorist groups (including, reportedly, bin Laden's) get substantial funding by trading in them. The self-destructive U.S. drug policy has become a vulnerability we cannot afford.

Over decades, external and internal enemies come and go. Sometimes the government protects us from danger; sometimes it is the danger. Whenever there is a proposal to increase government surveillance power, we must judge it not solely in terms of the situation of the moment, but in terms of the whole range of situations that we have faced and will face again. We must use the government for our protection, but we must never stop protecting ourselves from it.

In the United States, we have developed a system to watch the watchmen: Judges watch them in some ways; the public watches them in other ways. For our safety, we must keep this system functioning. When the watchmen are really working for us, they can afford to let us check their work. When they ask us to stop checking, we must say no.

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