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A Thought on the Fourth of July

The first thing I read this morning: “Even Postal Service is Watching: Outside of All Mail Is Recorded.” Here are the first few paragraphs:

WASHINGTON — Leslie James Pickering noticed something odd in his mail last September: a handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home.

“Show all mail to supv” — supervisor — “for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. It included Mr. Pickering’s name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green.

“It was a bit of a shock to see it,” said Mr. Pickering, who with his wife owns a small bookstore in Buffalo. More than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled eco-terrorists by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Postal officials subsequently confirmed they were indeed tracking Mr. Pickering’s mail but told him nothing else.

As the world focuses on the high-tech spying of the National Security Agency, the misplaced card offers a rare glimpse inside the seemingly low-tech but prevalent snooping of the United States Postal Service.

Mr. Pickering was targeted by a longtime surveillance system called mail covers, a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.

Together, the two programs show that postal mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.

Now, when the recent NSA disclosures were made, one loud strain of reaction I heard was that anyone who didn’t understand that the government was grabbing phone logs and doing whatever with them was foolishly naive. “You should have known that they’ve been doing this,” people said. And one could say the same about recording the outside of all the mail you and I receive. After all, the story goes on to say that one part of this surveillance program is more than a century old and that the legal position of the executive branch is that we don’t have any reasonable expectation that the outside of an envelope handled by the government on its way to or from your home will be private.

So one is left to wonder where in our lives we might have a reasonable expectation of privacy. It seems that the sphere of privacy has shrunk to the point that if one goes beyond thinking a thought–a completely internal musing, never uttered aloud–the government has established that it’s within its legitimate power to know about it. Of course, we don’t expect that limit to last forever. Not to worry, though. If you’re not thinking bad thoughts, you have no cause for concern.

And so my thoughts on the Fourth of July, and on many other days as well, turn to Justice Louis Brandeis and what he wrote in a 1927 dissent in a case involving a bootlegger who challenged the government’s warrantless wiretap. Brandeis looked beyond the bootlegger’s plight to the effects of unchecked government power on the lives of people, even–or especially–when the government insists its goal is the public good.

… The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings, and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone — the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men. To protect that right, every unjustifiable intrusion by the Government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed, must be deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment. And the use, as evidence in a criminal proceeding, of facts ascertained by such intrusion must be deemed a violation of the Fifth.

… Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.

How far we have come.

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Wrath of the Bird Man

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Among the various schizoid tendencies evident in Berkeley life is the battle between the town’s self-conscious live-and-let-live creed and the habit of instructing fellow citizens about how they ought to behave. The laissez-faire creed honors panhandlers, naked pedestrians, tree sitters, borderline and full-blown mental cases and a panoply of other truth- and attention-seekers; the knee-jerk impulse to correct targets every manner of real and imagined infraction, public and private.

Today’s case in point: I took the dog down to the marina early in the afternoon. The weather was showery and there were few people around. As I usually do when the park is deserted, I let the dog run across the southeast meadow unleashed; he romps the quarter-mile or to the official off-leash area, stopping fifteen or twenty times along the way to check on ground-squirrel excavations.

This afternoon, an older woman walking a young black Lab preceded me across the open area As she walked along, she was intercepted by a long-haired, bearded man of middle age who was holding something up and shouting at her. When I got closer, I heard him yell, “Your dog should be on a leash! This is an extremely rare bird that a dog just killed!” And then, as I neared him, he turned on his heel and marched straight at me, thrusting the bird carcass toward me. “You have to leash your dog!” he shouted. “This bird was just killed by dogs.”

The guy (pictured above, in an actual action photo) was wearing a cap, and he had a dark green-and-black-plaid jacket on, and from a distance I wondered if he was some sort of park volunteer. So I said, “On whose authority?”

“What?” he asked.

“On whose authority do I need to put my dog on a leash?”

“On my authority — as a citizen!” he shouted.

OK: letter of the law, he was right. The place we were, dogs are supposed to be leashed. But like I said, with no one around, I let him run and follow the municipal code by picking up after him if he takes a dump. And I do keep an eye on whether he harasses birds, and although he occasionally will take a run at one of the big herons and egrets who show up to hunt in the meadow themselves, he has shown no interest in smaller birds like the unfortunate one the Unofficial Nature Warden was holding aloft. I told the man that as I walked on. I must have been a little too dismissive.

“This is not your property!” he screamed, stepping toward me. “This is not your fucking backyard!”

I looked at him for a moment, then remembered I had my camera. “Wait a minute–I want to take your picture,” I said. When I took the camera out, turned it on, and pointed it toward him, he threw the dead bird at my feet and turned and walked away. I noticed then that he had a plastic bag in which he was carrying his own camera. I told him I wanted him to come back and tell me about the bird, but he stalked off, saying that if he had to take his camera out and snap my picture, then the incident would become a matter for the police. He didn’t stop walking.

I looked at the bird. I couldn’t tell what kind it was. It could have been a shore bird, or it might have been one of the killdeer who settle down in the meadow after dark. It was impossible to tell what did it in, though there are feral cats around and other small predators that would be more likely to dispatch birds than dogs would. In fact, in all the times I’ve been down to the park, I’ve only seen one dog chase small birds, and it wasn’t close to catching anything, let alone killing it.

But protecting the birds down there wasn’t what the Unofficial Nature Warden was trying to do, anyway. He was just bearing witness to his sense of grievance about other park users flouting the rules. And for just a little extra spice in his existence, he might get off on bullying and intimidating the dog walkers he encounters. Several other people I met today said they’ve encountered him before and reported he was just as angry and confrontational as he was today.

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The 2005 Man of Zeal Award

And the award goes to … George Walker Bush. Again.

The president says allowing the National Security Agency to secretly intercept the communications of whoever the government sees fit to scrutinize ” is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists. It is critical to saving American lives.”

Someday, maybe there’ll be an accounting of all the good work this spying program achieved. Until then, we’ll have to take the president’s word for it. By now, I’ve got a pretty strong opinion of what that’s worth.

Last year, I wrote something brief about Olmstead v. United States. The term “landmark decision” is overused in reference to the rulings of the Supreme Court of the United States. But because of a brilliant dissent by Associate Justice Louis Brandeis that cut through the legalistic myopia of the court’s majority in a 1928 wiretapping case, Olmstead became a fundamental declaration of a right to live free of “every unjustifiable intrusion by the government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed.”

Of course, the president, his cohorts, and their defenders are a step ahead of Brandeis’s objection. They say what they are doing is not only justifiable, it’s a necessity for “saving American lives.” Again, don’t wait up late for proof — that would be only helping our enemies. And haven’t we done enough for them already?

In Olmstead, Brandeis anticipated justifications such as the one the president proffers now. He wrote: “.. Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding. …”

Men of zeal, without understanding. Engrave it on a plaque. Send it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Evil Counsels

Tonight’s topic — what is it again? It’d be great to tee off on the National Abortion Rights Action League’s misguided and idiotic TV ad against John Roberts, Bush’s nominee for the Supreme Court. Politics aside, if you can’t beat someone with the real record of their deeds and opinions, your fallback position really shouldn’t be to lie and distort and fabricate. Leave that to the pros on the other side.

But no, that’s not the topic. I could hold forth on Schwarzenegger, our very own blockhead Führer; he provides lots and lots of bile ‘n’ outrage material. And then there’s Bush: Every soldier’s mom’s best friend.

I have something more abstract on my mind. Here it is: Whitney v. California, decided by the Supreme Court in 1927. The case concerned a young woman from Oakland, convicted under a state law that outlawed “criminal syndicalism”; in practice, that meant the Communist Party and similar organizations were simply illegal, and having anything to do with them could be a felony. Miss Whitney, as the court’s opinion refers to her, was found guilty for doing no more than attending a party convention; that’s because the party in question advocated the overthrow of the capitalist system. The Supreme Court upheld her conviction on technical grounds; the majority opinion also held that the law was an acceptable exercise of state power to address a public danger and did not restrain the rights of free speech, assembly, and association.

Justice Louis Brandeis wrote a concurring opinion. He acknowledged in passing his acceptance of the technical grounds for upholding Whitney’s conviction. But his real purpose was to attack the law and the intolerance of free speech it reflected. It’s a ringing articulation of the importance of unrestrained debate in a democracy, and it’s widely celebrated as such. Check Google for “Whitney v. California,” and you’ll come up with about 9,000 hits. The U.S. State Department includes the case background and the Brandeis concurrence in its list of “basic readings on democracy.” I wonder how many people in Bush’s cabinet or the Congress have read it.

The opinion might be hard to digest in an age where some consider even soundbites on serious subject a little too weighty for some audiences to handle, But, in the context of Supreme Court writing, Brandeis is succinct and crisp. In current parlance, the whole concurrence is a highlight reel. Just one passage:

“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that, in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end, and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”

I never intended to come back to John Roberts and that abortion-rights ad. But there it is: “The freedom to think as you will and speak as you think.” What that means today is blasting away at your foes without fine attention to details like how all the facts, if you have any, might fit together. There’s not enough respect for, or faith in, the other side of what Brandeis suggests: “The fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”

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‘Men of Zeal … Without Understanding’

Some snippets from Olmstead v. United States, a 1928 Supreme Court case that considered whether unauthorized police wiretapping is a violation of the Fourth Amendment (“the right of the people to be secure …  against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”) and the Fifth Amendment (“no person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”). It arose from a bootlegging bust in Washington state in which federal prohibition agents had, in violation of a state law, secretly tapped phone lines to get evidence.

The majority, in a pedestrian and short-sighted opinion (by Chief Justice William Howard Taft) that the current administration would love, ruled, in essence, that it was fine for the agents to tap the lines and listen in because they hadn’t physically intruded on the suspects’ property when they did it.

Associate Justice Louis Brandeis wrote the most important of several dissents. He demonstrated the absurdity of the majority’s finding on the nature of wiretapping and added lessons on privacy, the need for individual protections against government power, and government’s responsibility to act within the law. The passage most apt for today’s America: one in which he warns of the danger of government pursuing “benificent” ends — making sure we’re all secure from terrorists, say — regardless of the means: “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

A few passages from Brandeis’s Olmstead dissent:

“… The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone-the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men. To protect, that right, every unjustifiable intrusion by the government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed, must be deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment. And the use, as evidence in a criminal proceeding, of facts ascertained by such intrusion must be deemed a violation of the Fifth. …

“… Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding. …

“Decency, security, and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means-to declare that the government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal-would bring terrible retribution.”

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