Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson and eavesdropping

by Jim Longworth

Last week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson whispered into what he thought was a dead microphone, and said he’d like to cut off Barack Obama’s nuts. But an astute, eavesdropping audio technician lifted the gaffe and had it broadcast around the globe. Appropriately, last week the Senate voted on a bill to allow wiretaps without warrants. This was cosmic symmetry at its best. Or perhaps it was comic symmetry.

Anyway, I felt badly for Jackson, much the same way I used to feel sorry for those movie mobsters whose phones were always being tapped by the FBI. After all, everyone deserves some modicum of privacy. Of course, if such eavesdropping could help fight the war on drugs or prevent jury tampering, then I’m all for a little bit of covert snooping. In like manner, I have no problem when the federal government listens in on phone conversations between two known terrorists plotting to blow up a skyscraper or highjack a plane.

The problem, however, comes when such surveillance is given blanket approval, absent of any judicial input or authority, and that’s where we stand as of last week. Several days ago the Senate voted to allow the government to wiretap anyone they choose without first obtaining a warrant. The senators also shielded from litigation and liability any phone company who cooperates with the Feds in this slimy endeavor.

Proponents of the bill say we need such wiretap capability in order to prevent acts of terrorism. Opponents, including the ACLU, see the warrantless wiretaps as an invasion of privacy and a violation of individual rights to free speech.

Of course, the Senate action was just a big charade, and pretty much moot. That’s because the Bush administration has been breaking an existing law ever since 9-11, and has done so without shame, apology or threat of impeachment.

The law Bush has been flaunting was established in post-Watergate America to prevent the very kinds of abuses our president is guilty of. It is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and it established a secret court that could issue immediate warrants for wiretapping bad guys and foreign enemies.

The question is, why didn’t the Bush brigade just play by the rules and obtain secret FISA warrants as needed? The answer is because this administration is arrogant and has a track record of abusing its authority. What Bush has been doing in that regard is appalling and what the Senate did is frightening.

We already live in a country where a neighbor who hates you can report you to social services for child abuse and have you investigated for something you didn’t do. A spiteful ex-spouse can call in a false tip to the IRS about how you’ve been hiding income. And a political foe can alert the FBI that you have been spending time with suspicious-looking Arab people after work each day.

Now, with our warrant system dismantled, the Feds can listen in on anything and everything we say, and do so without cause or fear of retribution. And now the phone companies can assist the government with this illegal eavesdropping without fear of being sued by innocent customers whose privacy has been trampled upon.

Interestingly enough, Sen. John McCain was absent for last week’s vote, but Sen. Barack Obama might as well have been McCain’s proxy. That’s because the Democratic presidential hopeful voted with 65 other senators to allow this egregious abuse of power. It was yet another example of how corrupt the two-party system is, and why we need to turn to independent thinkers like Ralph Nader to protect our liberties while protecting our borders.

Just remember, 9-11 didn’t happen because we failed to eavesdrop on terrorists. It happened because we failed to enact a moratorium on all immigration.

So next time you pick up the phone, don’t say anything you’d be ashamed to have repeated in court. And don’t joke about terrorists. And if you have an Arabic sounding name, stay away from the phone altogether. After all, racial profiling doesn’t just happen in airports. Now it can work against you in your own home. It’s ironic that Obama voted for a bill that could allow the feds to mistakenly target him for surveillance.

The good news is, if we can listen in on Obama’s private conversations, we might actually find out what he stands for. We might also find out what he really thought of Rev. Jackson’s whispered threat of castration. 

In any event, we learned a valuable lesson last week.

Our private speech should be protected. So should our private parts.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).