"The Perils of Unchecked Power"
Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach, one day before his 84th birthday, has published a warning against The Perils of Unchecked Power in the LATimes.
THE RECENT controversy over warrantless national security telephone taps, coupled with Martin Luther King's birthday, remind me of my time in the Department of Justice in the 1960s. It was a period of turbulent demonstrations, marches and sit-ins, many of them led by King in support of the constitutional rights denied by Southern law enforcement to black citizens. And it was a time of growing animosity between King and J. Edgar Hoover, who had created the Federal Bureau of Investigation and led it since 1924. That animosity created a growing problem for Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy and those of us on his staff.
Today we are again engaged in a debate over wiretapping for reasons of national security — the same kind of justification Hoover offered when he wanted to spy on King. The problem, then as now, is not the invasion of privacy, although that can be a difficulty. But it fades in significance to the claim of unfettered authority in the name of "national security." There may be good and sufficient reasons for invasions of privacy. But those reasons cannot and should not be kept secret by those charged with enforcing the law. No one should have such power, and in our constitutional system of checks and balances, no one legitimately does.
Forcing the executive to explain its reasons for intrusive law enforcement is essential to maintaining not just privacy but freedom itself. A congressional committee must exercise oversight. So too must an independent court because Congress is also subject to possible political pressure.
Our freedom is too precious, and too much blood has been shed to preserve it, to entrust it to a single person, however sincere and however well intentioned.