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The Hubris of Investigators

We published another article about the Apple vs. FBI encryption controversy on TechCrunch and cross-posted it on EFF's Deeplinks blog. Beyond reprising some of the arguments I made in earlier posts about the issue, this piece emphasized the lack of transparency surrounding the FBI's activities generally, and the Bureau's long history of violating legal limits and abusing constitutional rights:

[W]hat investigators sought would not make anyone safe. As a matter of (perhaps unfortunate, but inescapable) fact, the FBI’s withdrawn demands would have created new threats with dangerous implications for millions of people.

Finally, this latest controversy highlights once again the need for meaningful congressional oversight.....Congress must finally investigate the federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, reform the bloated and dysfunctional classification system, and enforce at least a modicum of meaningful transparency so the public can know what our government is doing to us.

We know what that kind of oversight can accomplish. In the 1970s, robust investigations by the Church and Pike Committees exposed severe abuses of power spanning several decades.

During the infamous COINTELPRO era revealed by those committees’ investigations, the FBI actively worked to suppress the movement for equal rights for women, directed violence toward the civil rights movement, placed provocateurs in the movement to end the war in Vietnam, and conducted a character assassination campaign targeting a world-historic leader we now appropriately honor as a national hero.

Those abuses might still be secret if a handful of committed people hadn’t broken into a government facility and taken to Congress the files they found, or if Congress hadn’t been willing to launch meaningful investigations as a result.

The domestic surveillance disclosed by Edward Snowden in 2013 should have prompted similar investigations. Snowden’s revelations principally addressed the NSA, but also included reflections of constitutionally suspect operations by other agencies, including the FBI. Indeed, since Snowden came forward, bureau officials have gained further access to data collected by NSA counterparts. But Congress still refuses to launch a comprehensive and public investigation into these operations.

We’re all interested to know everything that happened in San Bernardino. As the battle over encryption shifts to Congress, we hope that lawmakers will grow equally interested in finally learning what’s happening at the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C.

Before withdrawing them this week, the FBI made demands that threatened the privacy, security, and even the lives of millions of people who’ve done nothing wrong. Before contemplating whether to expand the bureau’s powers even further, Congress should finally explore how they’re already being abused today.

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