FBI is on your cell phone. Do you care?

Nat Hentoff

John Adams lost the 1800 presidential election to Thomas Jefferson in large part because Adams, in 1798, pushed through Congress the Alien and Sedition Acts that punished any of the new Americans who stirred up “sedition within the United States” by speech or actions that brought the president or Congress into “contempt or disrepute.”

The First Amendment had been ratified only seven years before!

The American people, no longer threatened by the tyrannical British king and insistently proud of their guaranteed personal liberties, voted for Jefferson, who had strongly opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts (my book, First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America, Delacorte Press, 1980).

Here we are in 2011, with our federal, state and local governments having the technological ability to track and store in massive databases what we say on the phone, in emails, on Facebook, on Twitter and the myriad other digital means in which we communicate. The Obama administration has the power to punish an American for providing “material support” to our terrorist enemies.

Moreover, as I and others have reported, the Department of Justice’s Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative, or NSI, enlists We the People to spy on possible seditious Americans among us and report them to the FBI and local and state police.

We are ordered to do this in obedience to the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign. It’s up to you to define “suspicious.” This is what our America has become.

Jefferson’s ghost might want to start another revolution.

Will this gutting of the First and Fourth Amendments injure President Obama’s prospects for a second term? I’m not aware of any signs of even small-scale angry protests from citizens that will add to his already formidable obstacles to remaining in the White House.

But maybe what follows could begin to awaken some of us to the continual eroding of our privacy – without the government telling us what it regards as “suspicious” about us.

After Congress rushed through the USA PATRIOT Act’s extensive raid on our constitutional rights, the American Civil Liberties Union has been litigating and otherwise acting to restore what George W. Bush and Congress stole of our basic identity as Americans, and not only from privacy seizures by the federal government.

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