The reason former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover stayed in power so long despite his reputation as a ruthless bully is because he knew where all the dirty underwear was buried. Secrets are power, and they can be abused. History is rife with examples.
Part of the pushback against the recently leaked government mass-surveillance programs has been the birth of a national movement called Restore the Fourth. The movement sprang to life with July 4 rallies in cities across the country, including Rochester, with the ultimate goal of ending warrantless mass surveillance in the United States.
Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed that warrantless intelligence-gathering in the US is much more widespread and intrusive than previously known. The NSA is collecting and monitoring massive amounts of data, including the phone records of millions of Americans, to look for ties to terrorists abroad.
Restore the Fourth organizers say that the surveillance programs are in direct conflict with the probable-cause threshold set out in the Fourth Amendment.
"There's certainly a role for intelligence and data-gathering," says Kevin Wilson, a co-organizer of the Rochester chapter of Restore the Fourth. "It's just a matter of keeping it limited, constitutional, and accountable."
More than 50 people showed up at the local Restore group's July 4 march and rally that began at Washington Square Park and ended at the Federal Building, Wilson says. And there are more than 100 subscribers to the group's Facebook page, facebook.com/rochesterrestorethefourth.
The challenge now, Wilson says, is to keep together the diverse factions that make up the local movement — it includes people from the Green Party, Libertarians, International Socialist Organization, We Surround Rochester, Tea Party, Rochester Red and Black, and other activist groups — and to identify priorities and tactics.
"We are very much a nonpartisan movement," Wilson says. "[We're] bringing people together from all over the political spectrum who are concerned about their constitutional rights — who want to stop warrantless mass surveillance on the American people. Spying on American people is unacceptable."
One of the group's bigger tasks — perhaps the biggest — is education, organizers say. Wilson and local Restore co-organizer Dan Cole say that they are aware of the polls showing that a majority of Americans are OK with the surveillance programs.
But Cole says the wording of the questions is a significant problem and skews the outcomes of the polls. The reporting was largely based on the results of polls conducted in early June by Pew Research and ABC/Ragtimewildly misleading and have since been flatly contradicted by the overwhelming majority of relevant polling data."
Those early polls did not, for example, distinguish between surveillance of terrorism suspects and surveillance of ordinary Americans, PolicyMic says.
Cole points to a June CBS News poll showing that 58 percent of Americans disapprove of the government collecting phone records of ordinary Americans, while 75 percent approved of monitoring people suspected of terrorist activity.
"We just need to continue our campaign of education," Cole says. "This is data that is private, that you don't want out in the world — that you didn't consent to have out in the world. And privacy violations like this, spying like this has been used to oppress people around the world."
The government has a long and sordid history of spying on Communists, peace activists, black radicals, civil rights leaders, and others it deems suspicious or possible threats.
And saying that the government is only collecting metadata — data that describes a document, for example, without the content of the document itself — is not reassuring, Cole says. There are ways to piece together that data, he says, to track someone's day-to-day movements.
"It's not that much of a stretch to see how that could be used to crack down on dissidents or to blackmail people," Cole says.
Cole and Wilson say that they are still formulating the local Restore group's next steps, but that they could include lobbying lawmakers, passing petitions, and visiting town meetings to urge local officials to pass resolutions denouncing warrantless mass surveillance.
"We want to stay active and to keep educating people about this issue until we've made real progress on it," Wilson says. "What form that takes, our movement and the national movement are still trying to assess. We're working with other Restore the Fourth groups across New York State to try to see what direction they're going and trying to collaborate — sharing resources and ideas."
The group may also take on Rochester-specific issues, such as the stop-and-frisk type programs that are put in place when violent crime heats up. Another area ripe for possible challenge is the city's red-light camera program. The constitutionality of similar programs has been challenged in cities across the country.
"There are a lot of Fourth Amendment concerns here," Wilson says. "Fourth Amendment violations take place everywhere, on every level of government. The NSA is just something that formed the nucleus for this national movement. But it's certainly not the only issue we have in regards to privacy."
Rochester Restore the Fourth will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 18, at Crossroads Coffeehouse, 752 South Goodman Street.