[Reader-list] Who will watch the watchmen?

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Thu Oct 18 07:31:13 IST 2001

Who will watch the watchmen?

October 8, 2001

By Richard Stallman

[Richard Stallman is founder of the Free Software

Who will watch the watchmen? The question was posed by
Plato, but it is just as important today as it was 2,400
years ago. Power has to be kept in check, as the
founders of our country knew when they designed a system
of checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution. Any
agency that has the power to protect us from enemies
also has the power to do us great harm. Police must be
able to search for evidence, if they are to catch
terrorists or other criminals. But when police can get
access too information about us too easily, they
regularly abuse their power. (See "Cops tap database to
harass, intimidate.") It is vital to protect citizens
from police intrusion. In the United States, we do this
by requiring the police to go to court and obtain a
search warrant.

Today the security forces want to be allowed to seize
credit card information from Internet sites without a
court order; they want to be able to record what URLs
you look at without a court order, which can tell them
such information as what books you have bought. There
will be no difficulty getting a court to approve a
search warrant when there is credible evidence of a
terrorist plot, so they can investigate terrorists
without this change. Whenever police ask to be allowed
to bypass search warrants, we must be on guard.

We depend on the FBI to investigate suspected
terrorists, but who else will it investigate? Probably
any real political opposition, since the FBI has a long
history of investigating dissidents purely for their
political views. Martin Luther King Jr.'s phone was
tapped; his life-long commitment to non-violence
apparently was not enough reason to consider him non-
threatening. More recently, John Gilmore, founder of the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, was investigated by the
FBI as a criminal suspect based on no evidence except
his political views.

Terrorists often set up organizations to carry out their
work or raise funds, and it makes sense to pursue those
organizations, and prohibit contribution to them. But we
must be very careful about how organizations are
designated as terrorist, because we know the FBI won't
be reasonable about it. The FBI has infiltrated and
targeted many peaceful political groups -- in the '80s,
while the United States supported a regime in El
Salvador that killed tens of thousands of opposition
activists, the FBI burglarized the office of CISPES
rather than ask for a search warrant to investigate.

Will the FBI stick to reason in deciding what is a
"terrorist group?" Not if recent experience is any
guide. On May 10, 2001, FBI director Louis Freeh
testifying to Congress on the "threat of terrorism to
the United States" listed Reclaim the Streets as a
terrorist threat. Reclaim the Streets sets up surprise
street parties, where people play music and dance. It is
described in the book No Logo, by Naomi Klein, as one of
the new forms of protest against global brand-dominated
culture. No person has ever been killed or wounded by
Reclaim the Streets. Can't the FBI distinguish between
dancing and murder?

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has asked for the
power to deport any non-citizen, or imprison him
indefinitely, on mere suspicion of involvement with
terrorism, without even going to court. This would deny
visitors and immigrants to our country the most basic
legal right, the right to a fair trial when accused of a
crime. It would put the United States on a level with
every police state. The U.K. government has already
announced plans for similar measures; we cannot take for
granted that the United States will not follow.

Another way the watchmen can threaten our freedom is by
keeping us in the dark about what the government is

There are good reasons to keep secrets about
intelligence- gathering methods. If enemies find out how
their plans are being observed, they can take
countermeasures. But the U.S. government also has a long
tradition of keeping secrets from the American public to
conceal its mistakes or its mistreatment of the public.
In the 1960s, the Pentagon Papers showed that the
Department of Defense knew that what it was telling the
public about the Vietnam War was false. The public found
out because a heroic whistle-blower, Daniel Ellsberg,
released a copy of these papers to the New York Times.

So when we see proposals for laws to prevent leaks by
punishing whistle-blowers, we should check them very
carefully and make sure we won't be giving our public
servants carte blanche to thumb their noses at us.

If an FBI agent asks for our cooperation, what should we
do? The FBI investigates and arrest terrorists. If the
FBI were investigating a plot to hijack planes, I would
want to help all I could. But the same FBI arrested
Dmitry Sklyarov for allegedly developing a program that
Americans can use to escape from the shackles of Adobe
e-books. No one should cooperate with an investigation
of that kind of "crime." If you don't know whether a
policeman is looking to arrest a person for murder or
for smoking a joint, how can you determine what right
conduct would be?

If the United States wants to obtain full cooperation
for the FBI and the police from all Americans, it should
abolish laws that shackle and harm Americans. Congress
should repeal the DMCA, and the prohibition of certain

Prohibition of drugs is especially self-destructive now,
because in addition to imprisoning a million Americans
who would otherwise contribute to the strength of our
country, it subsidizes terrorism. Prohibition makes
illegal drugs so profitable that various terrorist
groups (including, reportedly, bin Laden's) get
substantial funding by trading in them. The self-
destructive U.S. drug policy has become a vulnerability
we cannot afford.

Over decades, external and internal enemies come and go.
Sometimes the government protects us from danger;
sometimes it is the danger. Whenever there is a proposal
to increase government surveillance power, we must judge
it not solely in terms of the situation of the moment,
but in terms of the whole range of situations that we
have faced and will face again. We must use the
government for our protection, but we must never stop
protecting ourselves from it.

In the United States, we have developed a system to
watch the watchmen: Judges watch them in some ways; the
public watches them in other ways. For our safety, we
must keep this system functioning. When the watchmen are
really working for us, they can afford to let us check
their work. When they ask us to stop checking, we must
say no.

Copyright 2001 Richard Stallman

Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article
are permitted in any medium provided the copyright
notice and this notice are preserved.

More information about the reader-list mailing list