Op-ed: Defending against our defenders

  • By Bob Franken
  • Tuesday, October 6, 2015 6:44pm
  • Opinion

Leave it to the Secret Service to demonstrate conclusively that secret information isn’t secret. The elite force also has been proving of late that it isn’t all that elite, what with fence-jumpers and drunk agents crashing into security barriers at the White House, to say nothing of operatives hooking up with hookers when they’re on the road protecting POTUS (the agents, not the hookers).

When Congress had the temerity to investigate the embarrassments, a huge number of people in this Keystone Kop force decided that it was time to take vindictive action. They focused their malice on Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee that, uh, oversees government agencies, like the Secret Service. Chaffetz even had the audacity to criticize the Secret Service — which, given their klutzy behavior, didn’t seem all that bold.

Apparently it did seem that way to the people in the secret bunkers. According to an inspector general report, they decided it was time to humiliate the congressman, time to teach him a lesson. This went as high as Assistant Director Edward Lowery, who wrote an email that made it clear he favored the idea of leaking confidential dossiers about Chaffetz that were legally supposed to remain private. “Some information,” Lowery wrote, “that he might find embarrassing needs to get out.”

By the way, that “embarrassing” stuff was a file showing that in 2003, Chaffetz had applied to the Secret Service and hadn’t gotten the job. Why that would be so mortifying escapes me, particularly when there’s plenty about Congressman Chaffetz’s official conduct and hard-right politics on the public record that already invites ridicule. That, however, is beside the point. Secret Service officials, higher-ups, as well as rank-and-file, seriously abused their power. Even worse, this actually points to a much bigger problem.

In the name of national security or law enforcement, officials have been taking away our civil rights in chunks. When they get caught electronically spying, when they’re exposed for putting the lives of the entire public under surveillance, they respond that we have to trust them not to misuse the ill-gotten information. In the case of the National Security Agency sweeps, it turns out that a few operatives were using the covert intelligence to check on the love lives of people they knew. Audits have shown that there were thousands of cases where legal restraints were ignored and mistakes made.

Thanks to smartphones, we see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to police violently overstepping their authority, often with deadly results. The videos have forced normally reluctant higher-ups to act against their bullies in uniform, the ones who make life more dangerous for innocent people just going about their lives. Of course, the vast majority in law enforcement conscientiously try to protect their fellow citizens from crime, but reports of police brutality, when it does occur, fall into a black hole, and the bullies in blue go unpunished. At least now they can’t escape the visual evidence and wide distribution of it on various media. Sometimes they are forced to discipline and even prosecute the bad apples in their ranks, at least the ones who have been caught on camera.

At the very same time, however, they seek to push the envelope with technology that makes it easier to track down lawbreakers’ every move. The problem is that they also can violate the rights of the millions of law-abiding citizens with their indiscriminate sweeps. They can stomp on a wide range of legal protections that are supposed to set the nation apart from police states.

Of course we need law enforcement; we also need effective intelligence. It’s a dangerous world at home and abroad. But what we too often discover is that we need protections from our protectors. The argument that we can save freedom only by taking it away is ridiculous.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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