On Monday, while testifying at a congressional hearing investigating the Executive Branch’s authorization of without-a-warrant wiretapping of U.S. citizens, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said, “I gave in my opening statement, Senator, examples that President Washington, President Lincoln, President Wilson, President Roosevelt have all, uh, authorized electronic wiretapping.”
I watched this on CSPAN, live, as the statement was made, and was truly surprised there was no audible laughter emanating from the television’s speakers. Immediately after hearing the statement I burst out laughing, it was the best joke I’d heard all year.
What makes Gonzales’s statement so ridiculous is that the electric telegraph was patented in the U.S. in 1837, this was shortly after electromagnetism was discovered by scientists in the 1820s or thereabouts. Since George Washington was the first U.S. president, holding office from the years 1789-1797, it seems impossible that “electronic wiretapping” could have been performed during his presidency.
Many of us have heard or read of the story about Ben Franklin flying the kite in a lighting storm which lit up a key when the kite was struck by a bolt of lightning, and which, as the tale goes, marked the discovery of electricity. That reportedly happened in the mid 1700s sometime, according to Wikipedia, if in fact it is a true story. Static electricity was known of much earlier, but I digress.
If you haven’t seen or heard Gonzales’s statement, one video clip can be downloaded at Intoxination, via Crooks and Liars.
In a (mostly) unrelated bit of trivia, Western Union recently sent its last telegram, and this was said to have completed the company’s transition from communications to financial services. Here are some fair use snippets from the article, the emphasis on year dates was added by me:
“Effective January 27, 2006 … Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage.” … “The peak of Western Union’s telegram business was 1929, when the company and its army of uniformed messengers delivered 200 million telegrams worldwide — almost 550,000 a day.” … “Strictly speaking, the telegram — by definition, a message sent by telegraph — died a long time ago. In the mid-1960s, Western Union began sending its customers’ messages wirelessly using microwave radio beams instead of wires strung on poles.” “Western Union was first on many fronts: It built the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, it introduced the first stock ticker in 1866 and was one of the first 11 stocks tracked by the Dow Jones Average.”
I wrote above that this financial news item was mostly unrelated to this article’s main topic of warrentless wiretapping. However, the dates are curious:
- 1861 was the start of Lincoln’s Civil War, it was also in the mid-1800s that saw the beginning of Corporate Welfare.
“Charter revocation became less frequent, and government functions shifted from keeping a close watch on corporations to encouraging their growth. For example, between 1861 and 1871, railroads received nearly $100 million in financial aid, and 200 million acres of land.” (read more as PDF…)
- 1866 was during the American period known as Reconstruction.
- 1929 was the year President Hoover took office, the infamous stock market crash occurred which marked the end of the Roaring 20s, and about one month later, Hoover told Congress that (paraphrased) the economy was doing great and the American people had regained confidence in it.
- mid-1960s was a time of much technical innovation, one of which related to a precursor of today’s Internet, Darpanet if I remember correctly.
- 2006? What will the historians tell us in the future about now? We should know most of the possibilities by the end of the year. Perhaps the historically most significant event will be warrentless wiretapping, perhaps it will be something else more serious.
The connection in my mind between the two seemingly unrelated items is primarily due to the term Gonzales used in his testimony, “electronic wiretapping” and, paraphrasing, that the Executive Branch had done this broadly in various administrations. The news item about Western Union I’d noticed a few weeks ago relates to the telegraph, one of the first uses of ‘conductive wires’ for ‘electronic communication.’ Connecting the dots to a wider corporatist consipiracy seems tinfoilish, but is it all that hard to imagine when considering Abramoff, Cunningham, Enron, Worldcom, Arthur Anderson, et al? I guess corporate crime still pays.
The investigation and turning of the wheels of justice down the road of wiretapping without-a-warrant or illegal domestic spying will require a firm grip on events to avoid slipping into hasty judgements that may be wrong turns if driven by a lack of meticulousness. If one views AG Gonzales’s statement, the one that seems so ridiculous on its face, as an admission to the public that our government has historically spied on its own citizens in spite of a 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and siezure, then it certainly explains why there was no laughter in the hearing room. In this case, Gonzales’s statement is definitely not ridiculous.
Twelve scholars wrote:
“Dear Members of Congress: We are scholars of constitutional law and former government officials. We write in our individual capacities as citizens concerned by the Bush Administration’s National Security Agency domestic spying program, as reported in the New York Times, and in particular to respond to the Justice Department’s December 22, 2005 letter to the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees setting forth the administration’s defense of the program. Although the program’s secrecy prevents us from being privy to all of its details, the Justice Department’s defense of what it concedes was secret and warrantless electronic surveillance of persons within the United States fails to identify any plausible legal authority for such surveillance. Accordingly the program appears on its face to violate existing law.” (read more of the scholars’ legal reasoning…. Scroll to the bottom for their names, academic qualifications, and experience.)
It appears that the FISA law, passed by the Legislative Branch and signed by the President in 1978, was violated by the current Executive Branch.