As the world learned this year from Edward Snowden the degree that the U.S. government has used electronic surveillance, a few old hands recalled that much of what the National Security Agency renegade revealed in 2013 was actually foretold in 1963 in a very unlikely venue: an hour-long episode of the popular ABC-TV science fiction series of the time, "The Outer Limits."
Incredible as it sounds, it's true. As President Barack Obama addressed the collection and storage of millions of Americans' phone records at his news conference Friday, libertarians who hailed Snowden as a whistleblower rather than a traitor told Newsmax about rediscovering the "Outer Limits" episode "O.B.I.T." that stands for "Outer Band Individuated Teletracer.”
The story is about a high-tech scanning device at a military base that can eavesdrop on any of its personnel within a 100-mile radius.
"O.B.I.T.," in fact, is developing a "Atlas Shrugged"-style following among those who consider themselves libertarians and fighters for civil liberties.
"I watched 'O.B.I.T.' last night," Libertarian Party National Political Director Carla Howell told Newsmax recently, adding that it brought back memories "of my brother and sister being frightened by an episode that left them screaming for hours into the night.
"One of the purposes of science fiction is to predict and prevent forces of evil. It's a shame more people were not exposed to the O.B.I.T. story and took the threat it foretold more seriously," Howell said.
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Shot in striking black-and-white, it first aired on November 4, 1963. The episode commences with the murder of a U.S. Army officer at the Cypress Hills Research Center, a top secret Department of Defense facility in New Mexico.
At the time of his death, the officer was operating and writing reports from O.B.I.T., which can monitor conversations of the center's personnel at any time or place. The fictional U.S. Sen. Jeremiah Orville arrives at the center to conduct a hearing on the device. It is soon discovered that the device had authorization from the Pentagon and was manufactured by a private contractor no longer in business.
"Nobody at the center is unaware of its existence," Byron Lomax, deputy director of Cypress Hills, assures Sen. Orville, and then offers the standard defense heard today to justify widespread surveillance: "People who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear from O.B.I.T."
"I'd hate to have that machine trained on me when I'm cussing out a fellow senator," replies Orville, "or the president, or my former law partner, or my wife."
The senator's questioning unearths some startling discoveries about the extent of O.B.I.T.'s eavesdropping. One civilian employee at the center calls it a "Peeping Tom machine. It follows you anywhere, anytime." Colonel Grover of the center’s military staff says on the witness stand that O.B.I.T.'s regular monitoring "is like a debilitating disease" and "the worst thing of all is I can't not look. It's like a drug or a horrible addiction."
As it turns out, there are O.B.I.T. devices doing monitoring on 18 military bases and they are also employed in civilian life: industry, education, and the communications business.
The dramatic courtroom-style scenes reach a climax, and there is a dramatic twist about the origin of O.B.I.T.
Gary Johnson, former New Mexico governor and 2012 Libertarian presidential nominee, was strongly moved after a recent viewing.
"It is remarkable that a 50-year-old TV episode could have been so prescient," Johnson told Newsmax. "The Outer Band Individuated Teletracer is alive and well, with the only real difference being that was capable of being only slightly more intrusive than what our government appears to be doing today. With a few more drones and surveillance cameras, today’s spy agencies may get there."
Johnson was especially stirred by "the characterization of O.B.I.T. as a 'debilitating device' that "saps the very spirit’ from its targets. Fifty years ago, those writers obviously got the reality that a government spying on its own citizens with no justification has a chilling effect on freedom."
Johnson strongly believes that "every member of Congress and senator — not to mention the president — should be required to watch or read Colonel Grover's 'testimony.' He nailed it, albeit with some great 1960s vintage melodrama."
"It's also worth noting that the idea that the fruits of domestic spying might be used against an elected official even made its way into the story," he said. "I don't even want to contemplate that possibility, but there was a time when we wouldn't have contemplated the possibility that our own government would be sweeping up billions of phone calls, emails and financial transactions."
Before he left Washington for the Christmas holidays, the president said that "the environment has changed" regarding surveillance and "just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should."
For fans of "O.B.I.T," he might well be taking his cue from the closing line narration of their favorite program: “Whether O.B.I.T. lives up to its ultimate intent depends on you."
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