Like it or not, secret surveillance is here to stay

The cold war resulted in a permanent expansion of intelligence gathering.

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Sometimes I wonder if any information about me has ever appeared in the president's Daily Brief. That document, prepared by the CIA, gives the chief executive a quick update on important issues affecting national security. Much of the information is considered highly sensitive and is gathered through a variety of sources all over the world.

Government snooping is causing lots of controversy right now, and most of the media discussion is focused on what President Bush calls the "terrorist surveillance program" run by the National Security Agency. While politicians and pundits argue about the legality of the NSA activities, I'm wondering how much Joe and Jane American walking along Main Street know, or care, about the entire field of intelligence gathering.

After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson advocated a new world order of international relations governed by "open covenants, openly arrived at." No more diplomatic subterfuge or secret pacts that could plunge nations into horrific conflicts. It was a great idea that never panned out. Wilson would surely be stunned to learn that by the end of the 20th century the US government was running more than a dozen agencies engaged in a wide range of surveillance operations.

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Anyone who wants a quick overview of how we got to this point can find plenty of firsthand accounts, and the one I recommend is a memoir by the late CIA director Richard Helms titled, "A Look Over My Shoulder." In an understated, dispassionate tone, Helms describes the onset of cold-war relations between America and the Soviet Union that resulted in a massive, permanent expansion of intelligence-gathering procedures.

The premise for all such activities is that some government or enemy organization may be preparing an action that would have serious consequences for our national security, a response may need to be initiated quickly, and there's no time to deal with the problem through normal political or diplomatic channels.

One successful operation that Helms mentions is secret funding the CIA sent to political groups in Italy and France prior to the 1948 elections in those countries. The aim was to prevent communist victories at a time when Stalin appeared to be expanding his grip across Europe. Was this involvement wrong? That question could be debated for an entire semester in a college class, and many of the pros and cons would probably sound exactly like current arguments raging over the NSA wiretap program.

I suspect that both US political parties are doing their own polling right now to see how this issue resonates with potential voters. Regardless of what they find out, intelligence gathering will remain a permanent part of modern life, and that fact is what makes me wonder if I'm ever going to be in the president's Daily Brief.

In researching this topic, I learned there are five primary categories of information that surveillance organizations collect, and I fall into the category known as OSINT - open source intelligence, such as books and newspapers. I assume this means some professional analyst may be scrutinizing my opinions for potential impact on current or future government policies.

If such analysis concludes that this column is useless and has no intellectual or intelligence value, I would like to officially request that my file be permanently sealed and stamped, "Top Secret."

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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