Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Whistleblower opens can of worms on America's secrets

Whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations that America's secretive National Security Agency has been spying on ordinary US citizens to a far greater degree than previously thought has sent sections of the US media, body politic and public into a tizzy.

But Massachusetts-based professor Christopher H Pyle considers such news old hat – particularly since he blew the whistle on similar shadowy state spying 43 years ago.

"We did end the army spying," Prof Pyle told the Belfast Telegraph, recounting how his revelations helped trigger a 1970s congressional ban on domestic military surveillance of civil rights activists.

"But the impulse to gather information on people, as much as possible, is always there. And it needs to be constrained," added Pyle.

"Unfortunately, the impulse to restrain government isn't always there and, in fact, has been dissipating over the years, which is, of course, very frightening."

In 1968, while a US army captain, he was invited to a top-secret facility near Baltimore to tour the location.

During the visit, Pyle was shocked to discover the extent to which army spies were monitoring US civilians engaged in civil rights protests.

Two years later, he blew the lid on the programme in a magazine article that spurred Congress to shut down it down and to pass laws to protect ordinary Americans from unwarranted government spying.

Pyle then served as a consultant to a US senator who later chaired hearings in the Watergate scandal that sank Richard Nixon.

Pyle, who teaches constitutional law at Mount Holyoke College, said Snowden's revelations have exposed a fundamental threat to America's hallowed constitution and, in particular, its 4th amendment protection against searches and seizures conducted without prior judicial authorisation.

In the post-9/11 world, private intelligence firms have cashed in – big time.

According to the Washington Post, there are 1,931 private companies working on intelligence, counter-terrorism, or homeland security issues for the US government.

In spite of the concerns of Pyle and other civil liberties advocates, a recent Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll found that 56% of Americans found that it is "acceptable" for the government and its sub-contractors to covertly monitor phone and internet activity of million of Americans while hunting terrorists. But Pyle isn't impressed.

"You have to remember that 47% of people believe in astrology," he retorted. "Polls like that are worthless because they're based on a lack of information and wishful thinking."

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