Friday, June 21, 2013

Irony of Obama's choice of Comey as FBI director

We are going to hear more about state surveillance on citizens in the coming days, with US President Barack Obama planning to nominate James Comey, a Republican, as the new director of FBI. He had been in the midst of the spying controversy right from 2004, when he was the deputy attorney general. During the Senate hearing for Comey's confirmation, in the coming months, he will in all probability be questioned about controversy.

In 2004, Comey had hit the headlines, when he refused to sign certain legal aspects of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance programme, initiated by George Bush. He was then serving as the acting attorney general since the incumbent, John Ashcroft, had been hospitalized. Ashcroft, too, refused pressures from White House aides, to endorse the programme. Later Bush intervened and the allowed the programme to run.
Comey's refusal had endeared him to Democrats then who were opposed to Bush's surveillance programme. Comey also had said that he had a change of heart after the Madrid blasts that year.

Obama has steadfastly defended the programme, while assuring the citizens that only certain generic data were collected and no one was actually listening to anyone's telephone conversations.

No government, of whichever party, anywhere in the world, will ever shut down surveillance. It's part of the police department's crime-prevention and law-enforcement procedures. Telephone tapping too has existed for many decades. So too privacy-intrusion concerns. Now, internet has increased manifold people-to-people contacts and, in the process, a lot of personal information are also more widely known than they ever used to be. So, we are just seeing a huge amplification of the age-old concern about privacy intrusion.

While Bush then, and now Obama in the US; and here the Indian government officials may argue that some amount of vigilance and surveillance is required to ensure the safety of citizens, the hullabaloo is over the seemingly inappropriate process used for surveillance. While the overriding concern of everyone continues to be their safety, the worry is whether governments are appropriating the right to pry into people's personal lives without the required legal and constitutional mandate. The objective may be legitimate but the process too needs to be.

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