The Dangers of Warrantless Wiretapping

My friend (and Cato alum) Julian Sanchez has a great op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on the history of wiretapping abuse. Supporters of warrantless wiretapping act as though it’s outrageous to suggest that unchecked surveillance powers might be abused. But history suggests that abuses of wiretapping power was the norm, rather than the exception, in the pre-FISA legal regime:

In 1945, Harry Truman had the FBI wiretap Thomas Corcoran, a member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “brain trust” whom Truman despised and whose influence he resented. Following the death of Chief Justice Harlan Stone the next year, the taps picked up Corcoran’s conversations about succession with Justice William O. Douglas. Six weeks later, having reviewed the FBI’s transcripts, Truman passed over Douglas and the other sitting justices to select Secretary of the Treasury (and poker buddy) Fred Vinson for the court’s top spot.

“Foreign intelligence” was often used as a pretext for gathering political intelligence. John F. Kennedy’s attorney general, brother Bobby, authorized wiretaps on lobbyists, Agriculture Department officials and even a congressman’s secretary in hopes of discovering whether the Dominican Republic was paying bribes to influence U.S. sugar policy. The nine-week investigation didn’t turn up evidence of money changing hands, but it did turn up plenty of useful information about the wrangling over the sugar quota in Congress – information that an FBI memo concluded “contributed heavily to the administration’s success” in passing its own preferred legislation.

Julian also describes abuses in the Harding, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. He concludes:

It’s probably true that ordinary citizens uninvolved in political activism have little reason to fear being spied on, just as most Americans seldom need to invoke their 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech. But we understand that the 1st Amendment serves a dual role: It protects the private right to speak your mind, but it serves an even more important structural function, ensuring open debate about matters of public importance. You might not care about that first function if you don’t plan to say anything controversial. But anyone who lives in a democracy, who is subject to its laws and affected by its policies, ought to care about the second.

Harvard University legal scholar William Stuntz has argued that the framers of the Constitution viewed the 4th Amendment as a mechanism for protecting political dissent. In England, agents of the crown had ransacked the homes of pamphleteers critical of the king – something the founders resolved that the American system would not countenance.

In that light, the security-versus-privacy framing of the contemporary FISA debate seems oddly incomplete. Your personal phone calls and e-mails may be of limited interest to the spymasters of Langley and Ft. Meade. But if you think an executive branch unchecked by courts won’t turn its “national security” surveillance powers to political ends – well, it would be a first.