Writings and observations

Trump 85: Surveillance


This ought to give us some pause about anyone we entrust with the job of president: They will have at their disposal the most sophisticated and sweeping surveillance network the world has ever known, getting more elaborate by the day.

We know what the law is, but realistically, on a day to day basis, we’re reliant on having a president who will to some reasonable degree at least exercise enough self-control not to put that system to use for bad reasons. We can debate what the outer margin of that may be, but we could at least say that it should not include the use of the system for anything less than serious national security reasons. There are laws in theory restricting how that system might be used, but in practice, if an order comes down from the White House . . .

If you say that giving this kind of surveillance power to anyone makes you uneasy, join the club. There is at least some reason to believe, though, that at least in recent years, as the system developed the sweeping capacity to grab, store and analyze great masses of communications has come into place, in the last quarter-century or so (the technology was simply less advanced before that), the presidents over this time – Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton – seem to have shown some restraint in using it.

Some restraint. An article in Vox has pointed this out too: “The NSA, of course, is supposed to focus these resources on hostile foreign governments and terrorist groups. But in principle, a future president could turn those capabilities inward, using them to spy on domestic political opponents, journalists, and activists. As we learned during the early years of the George W. Bush administration, there are few practical limits on the president’s surveillance powers. When lawyers advised Bush that a proposed dragnet surveillance program exceeded the NSA’s authority under the law, the president ordered the NSA to do it anyway.”

Anyone coming into the job is legitimately the subject of some concern in this area. But so far as we know, Hillary Clinton, who was in a position to have pressed for abuse of the system if she’d sought it, never did. There isn’t evidence of abuse in periods when it could have occurred.

We have no such experiential base to draw on with Donald Trump. The main cause for worry might simply be his shoot from the hip style, his lack of an internal governor stopping the execution of a bad idea.

But there is a little more. Every so often, in his speeches and other public places, you see an indication of the itchy trigger finger, the willingness to, as Nike promotes, Just Do It.

In a rambling answer to a question about who hacked the email server of the Democratic National Committee, he remarked, “Honestly, I wish I had that power. I’d love to have that power.”

Yeah, he probably would. Which is why he shouldn’t. – rs

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