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PRIVACY Forum Digest      Friday, 11 December 1998      Volume 07 : Issue 20

            Moderated by Lauren Weinstein (         
              Vortex Technology, Woodland Hills, CA, U.S.A.
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        Privacy and Impeachment (Lauren Weinstein; PRIVACY Forum Moderator)

 *** Please include a RELEVANT "Subject:" line on all submissions! ***
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The Internet PRIVACY Forum is a moderated digest for the discussion and
analysis of issues relating to the general topic of privacy (both personal
and collective) in the "information age" of the 1990's and beyond.  The
moderator will choose submissions for inclusion based on their relevance and
content.  Submissions will not be routinely acknowledged.

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     Quote for the day:
        "Madness!  Madness!"

                -- Major Clipton (James Donald)
                   "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (Columbia; 1957)


Date:    Fri, 11 Dec 98 22:30 PST
From: (Lauren Weinstein; PRIVACY Forum Moderator)
Subject: Privacy and Impeachment

Greetings.  I hope the readership will excuse me for diverging somewhat from
the usual format of the PRIVACY Forum Digest with this edition, which
contains but a single article.  It is also a somewhat long item, for which I
also apologize--but I feel that there are some crucial issues to address.
I'll be returning to the normal digest format with the next edition.

As regular readers of this digest may know, I endeavor to keep the Forum a
place where divergent, intelligent views on privacy and related topics can
be aired and discussed.  I routinely reject extremist or highly politicized
submissions.  I don't feel that such materials usefully advance the debate
about these issues, rather, I feel that they tend to do active damage.  

In fact, I try to keep the Forum as non-political as possible.  Privacy
concerns in particular seem to cut across all political and economic lines.
When partisan politics enter into the fray, the results are usually
non-productive at best and destructive at worst.

So it is with reluctance that I find myself forced to comment in this
venue regarding a largely political matter and the dangers it appears to
represent within the privacy arena.  Over the months as the many details of
the current impeachment crisis have been revealed and exploited in various
quarters, I've been asked many times to provide my opinions regarding the
privacy-related aspects of this whole situation.  Until now, I've chosen not
to do so here.  I should note that my thoughts on this matter would be
identical if the situation involved a Republican president and a
Democrat-controlled Congress.

To even the casual observer, it should be obvious that privacy matters
pervade the whole fabric of the situation from the very start.  They are in
fact at the very heart of the matter, in many divergent respects--the
original consensual intimate activities, Linda Tripp's secret taping
apparently instigated by the President's political enemies, the release of
normally secret grand jury testimony, videotapes, phone call tapes, and other
materials en masse to the media and Internet, the list goes on and on.  The
chronology, in all its salacious detail, has become the stuff of tabloids
and comedy shows, and has, in many respects, made this country the
laughingstock of the rest of the world's population, who don't understand
what all the fuss is about.  And it may only have begun.  

If the House of Representatives impeaches the President over these matters,
presumably on a nearly party-line vote and in the face of public opinion
polls which have shown remarkably stable support for the President, we may
face months of wall-to-wall details of a sort that will make what we've seen
up to now look like a picnic.  If a Senate trial ensues, that body will be
tied up during the entire period, as will the Chief Justice of the Supreme
Court, who must preside over the process.  We'll be treated to a parade of
witnesses, all the personages about whom we know far too much already, as we
delve into the intricacies of who touched who, when and where, and all that
led from those events.  But there will be more victims than those directly
involved in the proceedings--privacy will be one of them.

Even in the event of impeachment, it currently appears likely (based on
currently available information) that the President would not be convicted in
the Senate, and will continue in office.  But the damage being done to the
foundations of privacy in this country by what many perceive to be an
unfair and privacy-invasive sequence of events may be irreparable.  

There's no denying that the relationship between the President and Monica
Lewinski was one that most persons would find unethical and distasteful--we
can take that as a truism.  But it was also some other things.  It was
consensual.  It was legal.  It was also human.  And it should have been
private.  And in fact, under almost any other circumstances, it would have
been and remained private, not manipulated into a partisan attempt at a
parliamentary-style recall.  It was the result of human weakness and
imperfection, to be sure.  We now know from history that there have been
previous Presidents who have exhibited similar failings, and one can imagine
that the totals would be significantly enhanced if we added such activities
by Congresspersons over the years into the mix--which is just to say that
they're all human beings.  And yet, what we're seeing now is a dramatic
lowering of the bar for presidential impeachment, contrasting sharply with
the almost total lack of such actions in the past, even in the face of
activities and lies by previous presidents which involved 
institutional abuses of power that were clearly of national import.

So what has changed?  Part of the problem, I feel, is that we have tacitly
permitted extremism to grow unchecked in this country.  We have allowed hate
to fester.  Listen to the tirade of abuse, much of it of the most absurd
nature possible, heaped upon political figures, especially the President, on
a multitude of talk radio programs, most of which tend to be considerably
right-of-center in their orientation.  To the extent that we do not actively
attempt to encourage balance, moderation, or at least some sense of
reality into such discussions, the purveyors of hate are given a free hand.
(I am in fact now organizing a radio program that will specifically provide a
venue for rational discussion of all manner of political, social, and
technological issues--drop me a line if you're interested...)

In the sort of atmosphere that exists today, it's a small wonder that so
many obvious violations of basic privacy, and basic fairness, have been
perpetrated in an attempt to turn a distasteful and unethical, but legal and
private relationship, into a mechanism to satisfy those who hated the man all

We should all probably be quite used to pontification and hypocrisy when it
comes to politics.  But the tactics that have been employed, particularly
in regards to wholesale attacks against basic privacy rights, by those
whose goal all along was to find some way to "get" the President,
have been breathtaking in their scope.  

When it comes to privacy issues, we tend to of necessity deal in lots of
specific issues in isolation.  Credit cards, encryption, telecommunications,
databases, and so on.  We don't often have an opportunity to see how privacy
issues in many ways underpin the very foundation of our society and
culture.  In the current situation, we've seen some privacy-invasive
techniques used against the President that would, unfortunately, be
right at home in any technologically advanced police state.

There are those who would suggest that the sorts of privacy problems facing
the President would never be applicable to average citizens, that there
aren't Starr investigations and limitless resources available to pry into the
private lives of average folks.  I'd submit that there is direct
applicability.  Events such as these can't help but set the tone for the
entire nation.  If gross privacy violations are deemed to be acceptable when
attempting to impeach the highest elected official in the country, it seems
only reasonable that such violations will be seen as acceptable by a much
broader range of entities as well.

In Nazi Germany during World War II, many people sat by quietly and
unprotestingly as grievous wrongs were committed, simply because they weren't
members of the groups currently being herded into the boxcars.  What many of
them found, however, is that eventually the terror would spread to them as
well.  It might be worth keeping this in mind before suggesting that the
privacy abuses against the President of the United States, an imperfect
human being as are we all, have nothing to do with the rest of us.

Just my personal opinion, of course.  Thank you for your indulgence.

Lauren Weinstein
Moderator, PRIVACY Forum


End of PRIVACY Forum Digest 07.20

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