It's difficult to fathom the apathy of the American media and public to recent revelations about the U.S. government's massive spy operation. The story was news fodder for a couple of days and has now become nothing more than an occasional sideshow chronicling the whereabouts of the story's source, Edward Snowden.

Perhaps we've become so accustomed to revealing personal details on Facebook and Twitter that the government's ability and apparent willingness to scrutinize our lives neither shocks nor concerns us. When all government intrusions are reasonable, the Fourth Amendment's strictures against unreasonable searches and seizures disappear.

Forty years ago this month, it was revealed in U.S. Senate hearings about the Watergate scandal that a recording system installed in the White House during President Richard Nixon's administration could secretly record conversations taking place there. The Nixon White House tapes were later subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee investigating Watergate and confirmed the president's role in covering up the scandal.

For many Americans, Watergate represents both a low point in American politics and a high point for America's media.

In the 1970s, the story was government malfeasance. But Watergate spying was small potatoes by today's standards. It was, after all, merely one political party playing nasty with the opposition.


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Snowden, a former technical analyst for the CIA and the National Security Agency, has leaked details of a U.S. government surveillance program that "specifically authorizes intelligence agencies to monitor the phone, email, and other communications of U.S. citizens for up to a week without obtaining a warrant" when one of the parties is outside the U.S.

Snowden said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper that the U.S. government could spy on anyone, paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer and shield itself from oversight.

Snowden has identified several technology companies as participants in the government surveillance program known by the acronym PRISM, including Microsoft in 2007, Yahoo in 2008, Google in 2009, Facebook in 2009, You Tube in 2010, AOL in 2011, Skype in 2011 and Apple in 2012. In other words, the government has been spying on U.S. citizens with the aid of the country's biggest Internet giants.

In 1974, Watergate's primary source, Deep Throat, was being lauded and Congress took its role checking executive excesses seriously; in 2013, Snowden is lambasted, being labeled a traitor by various members of Congress, while that Congress refuses to investigate the executive branch.

Reporters are uninterested in seeking the details as to the extent to which Americans' civil rights have been (and are being) ignored. Instead, the media is focused on the leaker. The public is interested in personalities and individuals rather than principles and policies.

When I lived in Beijing (2009-2012), I wrote a Web column for the Chinese English-language website China Daily. I would sometimes criticize government policies, albeit treating China with kid gloves. Understanding the constraints under which one wrote in China and operating under the assumption that everything was being monitored made sense there.

What I didn't know was that my e-mail was likely being scrutinized by my own government.

Americans generally believe the press has been free to ferret out its government's misdeeds. But the government, by adopting the cloak of national security, has rendered the press so impotent that the Fourth Estate no longer cares to delve deeply into government spying. That, however, is only the bellwether of danger.

For as Snowden said, his greatest fear is that now, despite his revelations about American government surveillance, "nothing will change." The government will go on about its spy business usurping liberties to an even greater degree without any checks on its ability to do so.

Patrick Mattimore was a teacher in the Bay Area for many years and is an adjunct professor of law in the Temple University/Tsinghua University LLM program in Beijing, China. He now lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand.