Monday, January 28, 2013

The luxury of privacy in today’s America

The Pentagon’s inspector general has cleared Gen. John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, of accusations that he engaged in inappropriate conduct with Jill Kelly, a Tampa socialite.

Kelly’s name came to light following the resignation of David Petraeus. It was her request that the FBI investigate threatening emails she received from an anonymous source, later identified as Paul Broadwell, Petraeus’ paramour, that led investigators to uncover a trove of emails between Kelly and Allen. The allegation that some of these emails were sexual in nature prompted U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to order a formal inquiry.

The episode was an embarrassment for Allen, a moment when America wasted much energy in defense of its puritan mores. Given that military statistics show that some 30 percent of commanders fired since 2005 lost their jobs due to sexually related offenses, Allen and Petraeus were right to be worried. Petraeus opted to come clean quickly when it was revealed that he had conducted an affair, resigning as head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

What has been most disturbing about Petraeus’ and Allen’s cases is that it showed how the notion of privacy can sometimes be insignificant in the United States. Petraeus’ emails to his mistress were discovered by the FBI when they began searching for the person who had sent hostile emails to Kelly. In other words, Petraeus had no way of preserving his own privacy as the feds first trawled through his and Broadwell’s private email accounts. On top of that, Allen was soon lassoed into the scandal, without any justification whatsoever.

Panetta has been criticized for asking that Allen be investigated. For some critics, this will have hampered his actions in Afghanistan and damaged his reputation, whatever the consequences of the Pentagon investigation. But Panetta had to act because America is a nation run by lawyers, and his civilian and military lawyers recommended that the secretary refer Allen’s case to the Pentagon’s inspector general.

You have to wonder why two senior officers entrusted with leading American most sensitive military operations overseas, have to be humiliated for possibly displaying too much fondness for women. What is it about America that allows the authorities to expend a great deal of time and money to see to it that officials are faithful only to God and their spouses?

Two decades ago, the sociologist Richard Sennett wrote a fascinating article in Harper’s magazine in which he examined the American propensity to open up all aspects of people’s lives. He explained this as a consequence of the fact that the early settlers tended to congregate around their churches. This strengthened their communal bonds, and interaction, so that privacy was seen as a way of separating oneself from the community. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a right to privacy in the modern American republic, because there is. However, time and again this has been too easily undermined by a combination of the American tendency to regard openness as a virtue, proof of one’s honesty, and the defense of free speech and a free press, as articulated in the first amendment of the Constitution.

Free speech means that when someone strays from the righteous path, this can be discussed in media outlets without fear of being silenced. Yet this didn’t quite convince the Kellys, who published a commentary in The Washington Post on Jan. 22, decrying the way they were hounded after the Petraeus scandal broke. They wrote, “Our experience of having our privacy invaded and our lives turned upside down by authorities leaking our names and the existence of private electronic correspondence highlights the need for measures that ensure citizens retain their privacy when they seek assistance and protection from law enforcement and that the names of those who report a crime are not made public.”

The Kellys also used their article to defend passage of legislation mandating that law enforcement agencies get a court-approved search warrant before they can examine emails or other electronic content. Today, all that the police need is a subpoena, which does not necessitate the consent of a court. A Senate committee has voted in favor of court approval for searches. This represents a victory for civil libertarians, because if the entire Senate endorses the proposal, law enforcement agencies will have to prove probable cause when asking for a warrant.

That may be too late for Petraeus or Allen, whose reputation has already suffered from intrusion into their emails. How ironic that both men come from the military, which plays so central a role in most agencies specialized in spying on private citizens. A society in which lawyers and security personnel are influential can hardly avoid ignoring privacy. The first tend to stick to the letter of the law, allowing little room for interpretation, while the second find no abuse too reprehensible in protecting against potential crimes or attacks.

Barack Obama is no admirer of George W. Bush. Yet when it comes to issues of privacy and civil liberties, Obama has continued what his predecessor started after 9/11. The American government and law enforcement agencies know too much about us, or want to know too much, so that whenever issues of privacy are discussed, the default position is to argue that privacy is a thing of the past, abandoned on fields littered with invasive cellular telephones and Internet networks. There is a sense that the battle is over, that privacy is a favor in this day and age when policemen can access our most personal details.

But how true is that? There is nothing that peeping toms like less than a fuss. If enough people, Americans and non-Americans alike, say no to being spied upon, they will see progress. Public safety should not justify being stripped down by utter strangers. Truly open societies are those that will thwart an excess of openness. States don’t own us, although you would hardly know that from the way they behave.

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