[Dickerson] Who's Zooming Whom? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

[Dickerson] Who's Zooming Whom?

Earlier this month, President Bush signed into law revisions to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It gives the Bush administration new power to screen your e-mails and listen in on your telephone conversations.

At a time when the Mississippi congressional delegation should stand tall for America, all but two lawmakers crumbled like nattering nabobs of negativism, to borrow a phrase from a different political era, in a bizarre stampede to mimic the spy practices of, say, North Korea. Go figure.

Only Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, voted against the law. Trent Lott, who was on his way out of town at the time, didn't stick around to vote.

When it comes to spying, Mississippians have been there, done that.

From the mid-1950s to 1973, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission had unlimited power to spy on and terrorize Mississippians who held opinions contrary to those voiced by state government.

Mississippi gave the Sovereignty Commission power to spy on citizens without warrants, using any methods necessary. Empowered to examine the records and documents of any citizen, the MSC created dossiers that were used to destroy marriages and careers. It urged citizens to spy on their neighbors and report anything unusual to the Commission.

In one instance, the commission received a report in the early 1960s that a white woman in Grenada had borne a child who had suspiciously dark skin. An investigator was dispatched to that town.

The investigator, Tom Scarbrough, met with a secret source who told him that he thought the woman had an affair with a 31-year-old black motel employee. To resolve the matter, Scarbrough and the country sheriff went to the woman's home to examine the baby.

Wrote Scarbrough in a report: "After viewing the child I had a weak feeling in the pit of my stomach and the sheriff expressed he felt likewise. We both agreed we were not qualified to say it was a part Negro [sic] child, but we could say it was not 100 percent Caucasian." After an interrogation, the humiliated mother confessed that she'd had an affair with a motel employee, an Italian man.

Under the new spy law, the only restraint imposed on the Bush administration is that one of the people involved in a communication must be "reasonably believed" to be outside the country. Even if that restraint is strictly enforced, it will allow spying on any reporter who uses the telephone or e-mail to interview overseas sources, and it will allow spying on computer users who call for tech support and have their calls routed through India or some other foreign country.

If it is not strictly enforced, as history tells us will be the case, it opens the door to unprecedented abuses of power on Americans who have ever written or spoken anything critical of the Bush administration or the Republican Party.

When you look at the backgrounds of those in the Bush administration who backed the new law—the departing Karl Rove, for example, was a Richard Nixon protégé during the time that the disgraced president conducted illegal spying on the American public—it is clear that, whatever the intent of the legislation, the effect will be to allow the Bush administration to spy on Democratic and independent candidates for president and those who support their campaigns, and to spy on reporters who cover the campaign.

There is not the slightest bit of evidence that the administration needs the legislation to fight terrorism. It is absurd to think that terrorists are going to telephone or e-mail anyone in the U.S. to plan upcoming terror attacks. Why would they risk detection when all they have to do is fly to Mexico and walk across the border into Texas and plan their attack in air-conditioned comfort at Starbucks or IHOP?

If anyone needs to be spied on it is the Bush administration. Perhaps e-mail and telephone surveillance would explain why the administration has protected, for all these years, the Saudis, Osama bin Laden, illegal immigrants and the Texas-based corporations that have made billions off the so-called "war on terror."

The legislation will come up again in six months for renewal. It's time for Trent Lott, Thad Cochran, Chip Pickering, Gene Taylor and Roger Wicker to remember their roots, instead of bowing to the political machinations of a discredited administration that is more interested in spying—Sovereignty Commission-style—on Americans than fighting terrorists.

A New York Times editorial stated it succinctly: "If Congress once again allows itself to be cowed by Mr. Bush's fear-mongering, it must accept responsibility for undermining the democratic values that separate this nation from the terrorists that Mr. Bush claims to be fighting."

The changes made in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act set the nation up for the same nightmares experienced by Mississippi during the dark days of the nightriders. If our senators and representatives can't understand that ominous link to our past, they're representing the wrong state.

If you're not concerned about this issue because you're a Republican and think you're safe, then consider the likelihood that Democrats will be in charge of surveillance after the next presidential election. Say the wrong thing on the telephone or in an e-mail, and you might have some serious explaining to do to Hillary or Barack.

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