A Private Matter: Getting The Rules Straight

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

There is a memorable scene in the classic movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” where Butch (Paul Newman) takes on a menacing thug in the Hole In The Wall Gang. Outgunned in muscle and in stealth, Newman declares to the outlaw fixing to destroy him, “First, we gotta get the rules straight!”

“Rules, what rules?” the distracted palooka replies.

And with that, Newman kicks his combatant in the groin, knocking him to the ground.

The scene works well in the movies, or to some extent if you’re George Bush and the gunfighter is Al Qaeda, but it loses its red, white and blue luster if Americans are the ones being kicked in the privates over government-sanctioned eavesdropping and the examination of banking records where there is no clear oversight, no defined rules of engagement to protect the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” 

Yet again the Bush Administration is thumbing executive privilege at the Founding Fathers with the disclosure last week in The New York Times and other news organizations of a secret program, coordinated through the Central Intelligence Agency and the Treasury Department, that has examined “tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands” of private banking records in a post 9/11 effort to document and cut off the cash flow of terrorists.

No one would argue that covert surveillance of terrorists is critical to our survival, particularly in light of a dire warning last week from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales of the growing threat of “hometown” terrorist cells with no direct links to Al Qaeda, but Americans have a right to know at least the broad parameters of a private data dump. On cue, trigger-happy Vice President Dick Cheney castigated the press Friday for vetting “vital national security programs.” Without this disclosure, the chances of any oversight of the exchange of information with the Brussels banking consortium—Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT)—were about a slim as a quote from Ben Franklin on the issue.

“Oversight is the difference between something being reasonable and something being abused,” Lauren Weinstein, the head of the California-based Privacy Forum, told the Times.

The Bush Administration obviously doesn’t see it this way. Proving he’s gulping the Kool-Aid, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow calls criticism of the SWIFT program “entirely abstract in nature.”

An impotent Congress, which has been glancing sideways on the matter, clearly needs to get its head straight over clandestine oversight. If there are to be no rules on a wide range of information gathering tactics involving privacy rights, from politics to our fight against terrorism, the potential is ripe for White House abuse, now and with future administrations, Republican and Democrat. Rules are essential. Without them, Nixon wouldn’t have needed a plumber.

We gotta get the rules straight!

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