Tuesday, October 03, 2006

On the Probity of Reading Other Peoples' Messages

At the outset, let me say I am gratified by the resignation of Mark Foley from his seat in Congress. The Clinton-Lewinsky matter had made me suspect that the ethical standards of government are really so much below those that prevail in academe that the abuse of power present in a sexual liaison with a subordinate over whose career the superior has tremendous leverage is of no consequence in Washington.

It is not the primary purpose of this article to consider the moral and legal issues of ex-Congressman Foley’s behavior. On the one hand, I hold strongly to the moral teachings of the Orthodox Church, for which the sins punishable by death under the Old Covenant (including male-male anal sodomy) are penanced as murder and the deliberate excitation of the passions is understood to be sinful. On the other, I am a strong advocate of sensible age-of-consent laws such a prevail in Kansas and the District of Columbia. There is some irony, that if any law was broken by Foley, it is only a Federal law he, himself, sponsored, which criminalized use of the internet to solicit sex from a minor. (As an aside, one wonders if a 19-year old e-mails his 16-year old bride in one of the several states with sensible age-of-consent laws and signs the message NORWICH*, can he be thrown in Federal prison?)

Rather, I want to consider the light the Foley affair sheds on the controversies surrounding the war measure of intercepting telecommunications between persons in the U.S. and suspected al Qaeda abroad.

The ‘overly friendly’ e-mails and lewd instant messages were not released to the press by the ‘victim’, the page or former page who received them, but seem to have surfaced on a hitherto unknown left-wing blog. Where are the privacy advocates? Where is the outrage and offense that American citizens are having their private communications intercepted?

The outrage is, of course, nowhere to be heard. The reply, that, well these communications were at worst illegal, and at best tawdry and proof of Foley’s hypocrisy as an advocate for children, really says nothing about the privacy issue. A corresponding reply about content intercepted by the NSA carried no weight with the now-silent privacy advocates.

Except for industrial espionage and stealing insider information to beat the stock market, there is no point in intercepting communications unless there is something ‘wrong’ in them. The blackmailer, the police officer running a wiretap on a crime boss, the private investigator hired to confirm or dispel suspicions of infidelity, the intelligence officer intercepting and analyzing enemy communications, none of them care a whit about innocent, innocuous content. Like freedom of speech, freedom from unreasonable search only works when it protects the bad as well as the good.

It is telling that the same voices that object to surveillance of al Qaeda communications in and out of the U.S. are not raising questions about the provenance of the IM’s, about how the Soros-backed group C.R.E.W. came to be in possession of them, about how logs of them were obtained from some server or from one of the correspondents own computers.

Perhaps we should give the Democrats a little more credit for their stand on terrorist surveillance. Plainly they have no scruples about intercepting private communications between Americans and using them to destroy their political opponents. Perhaps they are protecting us from themselves: warrantless intelligence gathering in the hands of people with the level of character shown by C.R.E.W. and the Democrat leadership in Congress in the Foley affair might very well be a grave threat to civil liberties, and they do think they'll win the White House in '08.

*For those of you who don’t remember the old Monty Python sketch, that acronym for “Nickers off, ready, when I come home,” lead to a discussion of how Lord Norwich, who signs his name Norwich, would communicate the same sentiment to his wife.