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Dunsmore: Secret Snooping

Amidst the heated arguments over just what information is being collected by the National Security Agency that may impinge upon the American peoples' right to privacy and other constitutionally protected civil liberties, some historical perspective might be useful.

Since the early days of the American Republic, during time of war those freedoms protected under the Bill of Rights have very often come under threat by government action. And in almost every instance, the needs of national security have trumped civil liberties.

-During the Civil War President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus - the procedure by which an accused can appeal to a judge to determine the legality of his detention by the government. Also, the leader of the Democratic Party in the North, who condemned Lincoln for the war and strongly opposed freeing the slaves, was arrested, tried by a military tribunal and sent into exile.

-During World War I at least 2000 people who publicly opposed the decision of President Wilson to enter the war, were arrested and tried under the Espionage Act and routinely sent to prison for ten to 20 years.

-In World War II, President Roosevelt ordered the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans for the duration of the war. California's Attorney General Earl Warren, later to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a liberal hero, was a strong advocate of internment.

-The early years of the Cold War were marked by wide-spread anti-communist “witch hunts” led by the ruthless Senator Joe McCarthy who gave his name to the low point in American civil liberties history. It was a time when millions of Americas were forced to sign loyalty oaths - and when neither presidents Truman nor Eisenhower showed the courage to openly challenge the witch hunters.

- During the Vietnam War massive anti-war demonstrations and political violence were often met by provocative actions by the police and sometimes the National Guard - notably at Kent State University where the Guard shot and killed four students during an anti-war protest. Under both presidents Johnson and Nixon, the FBI carried out far-reaching secret programs to expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize dissident activities.

All of this is not meant to be an argument in defense of the National Security Agency’s mass monitoring programs that involve the secret collection of astronomical amounts of raw personal data – both foreign and domestic. However, it should be noted that what is being done today is legal and has been subject to both congressional and judicial oversight through the Senate and House Intelligence Committees and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

I believe the actual threats to civil liberties posed by the NSA’s various programs may not have reached the magnitude of some examples in American history. But given the amount and nature of the information being gathered secretly, the potential for abuse is clearly there – which is why today’s situation is highly troubling to many Americans on both the left and the right.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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