[FORUM]The opiate of the powerful

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[FORUM]The opiate of the powerful

Eavesdropping is the act of secretly listening to conversations, meetings or telephone calls without the speakers’ knowledge or consent. Eavesdroppers often record what they overhear. They have obvious reasons to listen secretly. They want to dig out other people’s secrets to profit from them. They want predominance in intelligence, or to threaten the other party with the information. The controversial “X-file” made by the National Security Planning Agency falls into the latter category.
Past administrations had feared eavesdropping. However, they were not free from the lure of the secret information that eavesdropping could provide. Apparently, no exceptions were made. A former agent who headed the Mirim wiretapping team of the National Security Planning Agency during the 1990s said that the agency had tapped every single high-ranking figure in the country except for the president. But was the president really an exception?
Right after the Roh Moo-hyun administration came into power, a Blue House secretary advised the president, “Do not consider your e-mail private. It is better to have an alternate cell phone number that other people do not know about.”
The Blue House has been using 017 as its wireless prefix instead of 011 for some time. It is unclear whether cell phones can be tapped. And prosecutors have said that tapping a cellular phone is theoretically possible, but realistically impossible because it is limited by distance and costs an enormous amount of money. But even the most powerful are not free of the fear that their conversations might be overheard.
During the 2002 presidential election campaign, candidates were troubled by rumors of wiretapping. There was a rumor that Roh Moo-hyun’s private conversations were being bugged and recorded; his opponent, Lee Hoi-chang, was said to be dodging eavesdroppers by using the apartment below his own to receive guests.
It was during the Kim Young-sam administration that the Mirim team of eavesdropping specialists under the National Security Planning Agency was revived. Senior Blue House officials at the time did not like reporters using their office phones to make outside calls; they often warned reporters that all conversations through their office phones were being overheard. Even President Kim, when using the phone installed in his car, would reportedly warn those he was talking to that it was not a secure line.
While President Park Chung Hee was using the Korean Central Intelligence Agency for his own political intelligence gathering, he himself was being eavesdropped upon by the United States.
In October 1976, the Washington Post reported that a U.S. intelligence agency had bugged the Blue House. The case become a diplomatic issue between Seoul and Washington; it was eventually resolved, but President Park remained paranoid about wiretapping to the last day of his life.
Furious at being dubbed “the second administration of the Sixth Republic,” the Kim Young-sam administration revived the Mirim team a year after President Kim came into power.
The Kim Dae-jung administration, which claimed to be a “people’s government,” expressed a strong distrust of eavesdropping in its early days by discontinuing the weekly report of the head of the National Intelligence Service to the Blue House. But the circumstances that have been recently revealed suggest that his administration had used the means of wiretapping as well.
A governing party insider who had worked for the National Intelligence Service at the time boasted to the reporters that the agency had eavesdropped on every restaurant in Seoul that was frequented by politicians and businessmen, but that the agency was not doing it any more.
However, Chun Yong-taek, then chief of the National Intelligence Service, feigned ignorance when hundreds of wiretapped tapes were leaked.
Those who were involved in leaking the tapes say they had provided transcripts to Park Jie-won, then minister of culture and tourism. It can only be concluded that there might have been an under-the-table deal, or that his weakness was being exploited.
Information obtained by unlawful eavesdropping is not admitted as evidence because it violates legitimate procedure. If it were allowed, society would fall into unmanageable chaos. It would be difficult to prevent blackmailing.
It would be incorrect to think that the general public went unharmed because only the powerful were bugged. Unfortunately, most people cannot live without faults. We all have a few things we want to hide. Forsaking the discipline of democracy for the sake of disarming political opponents would inflict enormous damage on the people.
Wiretapping is like a drug. It might be as sweet as can be for the user, but eventually he will be devoured by the dismal cycle of addiction.
It is, of course, important to investigate how past administrations were involved in eavesdropping. It is even more important to assure that the intelligence agency is free of the practice today.

* The writer is a JoongAng Ilbo editorial writer.


by Kim Du-woo
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