Sunday, January 08, 2006
From USA With Love,Fresh Air And A Tap Dance
As many would know,tapping of phones is not a new phenomenon.Therefore, when I read about the criticism of President Bush for unauthorised phone tapping,I wasn't very surprised.Of course, he defended his action saying that it was required to keep a watch(or lend a ear) on terrorist activities; but that did not cut much ice. He continues to be severely reprimanded by the Press and freedom-loving people for what they call "warrantless eavesdropping".
Our Congress Government seems to have caught the same infection. Amar Singh,the Samajwadi Party and sidekick of Mulayam Singh Yadav is fretting and fuming that his phone was tapped and 20 hours of his conversations have been taped.He has named Rajiv Shukla,a journalist turned MP as the main culprit who,according to him, in consort with an industrialist has done this job.Reliance Infocomm,his best friend Anil Ambani's company,ironically has been the service provider. It has been caught in the crossfire. Amar Singh has met the PM and laid the blame squarely on 10 Janpath. He said that he is getting threatening phonecalls for implicating Sonia Gandhi and that should anything happen to him, Sonia Gandhi will be entirely responsible. And he has named Ambika Soni as the hatchet woman. Amar Singh has also met Jayalalitha and Chandrababu Naidu who also have complained of their phones being tapped and is garnering their support to add teeth to his charges.He even had a private hush-hush meeting with Subramanian Swamy. Maneka Gandhi has also joined Amar Singh's club. The winter season in India has changed to a Tap and Tape season.
The grapevine says that the conversations,some of them, are with Bollywood bombshells. Flirtatious talk. And Amar Singh is livid. He has threatened to sue the people he has named; besides creating a ruckus in Parliament aimed at the Government for intruding on his privacy.
It is deja vu! I remember many years ago when the late Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party was in the Central Cabinet,a similar scandal broke out in Karnataka and the poor man lost his job because when he was the CM, it was established that he had authorised the tapping of some specific phone numbers. Also when young turk Chandrashekhar was the Prime minister,leader of the Congress party Rajiv Gandhi decided to withdraw support because he said his phone was being tapped and the Goverment collapsed. Whether big heads will roll this time is anybody's guess.
How does one deal with this penchant for eavesdropping that parties in power have.We have the National Security Act under which phone tapping can be legally done in certain cases, say the well-informed.I have not read the Act and I therefore cannot really comment.
In America, you also have the NSA but it is not an act;it is an agency. The National Security Agency, a low-profile organisation,more powerful and with far greater resources than CIA,but less visible.It is the largest US government intelligence agency.It is the single largest employer of Ph.d. mathemeticians,it has the single largest group of supercomputers and a budget much greater than that of the CIA. It spends about 21 $ million per year on electricity and has 18,000 parking spaces in its headquarters at Fort George,Maryland. It has even a computer chip manufacturing plant. It seems that NSA has been doing the phonetapping for the US Government for quite some time now. New York Times was the first to report it.It refers to phone tapping as a violation of the citizen's constitutional rights. "We have a President,not a King above law".
It is an ethical issue.It has to be secretive and is sensitive.Who should decide and what should be the criteria? Both the US and Indian Governments can learn important and useful lessons if they take the trouble to put politics behind and address the issue objectively. A clear framework can be drawn,with a set of guidelines, which will allow the concerned authority to undertake phonetapping with a proper justification.The National Security Act can be suitably modified to prevent misuse.Or,an altogether new Act can be passed by the legislature.Phone tapping should not be done at the whims and fancies of people in power.There must be a regulating mechanism.
Phonetapping is a double-edged sword. Used correctly, it can serve its specific purpose. Used wrongly, it can do incalculable harm.