Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Death of The Constitution Act: Obama and the Extension of The Patriot Act

You would think that there would be great outrage by progressives over the Obama administration's signing of an extension of the Patriot Act, one of the most hated pieces of legislation by civil libertarians during the Bush era.  To give credit where it is due, there certainly have been some recriminations in the pages of the DailyKOS or the Democratic Underground, but otherwise you will not find too much dissent from the left.  It speaks volumes when someone like Ted Rall has to opine that the loss of his career, or what is left of it, was not a product of his editorial cartoons lampooning Bush, but the negative reaction of publications like The Nation over his criticisms of President Obama, particularly his carrying over of Bush's odious policies on national security and civil liberties.

And for those Democrats who continue to live the illusion that the POTUS is on the right side of this issue, he most certainly is not.  Indeed, Obama is more extreme than President Bush.  How extreme?  Right now, as I write this, our POTUS has interpreted a secret clause (right out of Dean Wormer on Animal House) from the Patriot Act that allows him to unilaterally do whatever he wants in the name of national security.  Sounds crazy?  Here it is.

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There’s a Secret Patriot Act, Senator Says

by Spencer Ackerman

You think you understand how the Patriot Act allows the government to spy on its citizens. Sen. Ron Wyden says it’s worse than you know.

Congress is set to reauthorize three controversial provisions of the surveillance law as early as Thursday. Wyden (D-Oregon) says that powers they grant the government on their face, the government applies a far broader legal interpretation — an interpretation that the government has conveniently classified, so it cannot be publicly assessed or challenged. But one prominent Patriot-watcher asserts that the secret interpretation empowers the government to deploy ”dragnets” for massive amounts of information on private citizens; the government portrays its data-collection efforts much differently.

“We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says,” Wyden told Danger Room in an interview in his Senate office. “When you’ve got that kind of a gap, you’re going to have a problem on your hands.”

What exactly does Wyden mean by that? As a member of the intelligence committee, he laments that he can’t precisely explain without disclosing classified information. But one component of the Patriot Act in particular gives him immense pause: the so-called “business-records provision,” which empowers the FBI to get businesses, medical offices, banks and other organizations to turn over any “tangible things” it deems relevant to a security investigation.

“It is fair to say that the business-records provision is a part of the Patriot Act that I am extremely interested in reforming,” Wyden says. “I know a fair amount about how it’s interpreted, and I am going to keep pushing, as I have, to get more information about how the Patriot Act is being interpreted declassified. I think the public has a right to public debate about it.”

That’s why Wyden and his colleague Sen. Mark Udall offered an amendment on Tuesday to the Patriot Act reauthorization.

The amendment, first reported by Marcy Wheeler, blasts the administration for “secretly reinterpret[ing] public laws and statutes.” It would compel the Attorney General to “publicly disclose the United States Government’s official interpretation of the USA Patriot Act.” And, intriguingly, it refers to “intelligence-collection authorities” embedded in the Patriot Act that the administration briefed the Senate about in February.

Wyden says he “can’t answer” any specific questions about how the government thinks it can use the Patriot Act. That would risk revealing classified information — something Wyden considers an abuse of government secrecy. He believes the techniques themselves should stay secret, but the rationale for using their legal use under Patriot ought to be disclosed.

“I draw a sharp line between the secret interpretation of the law, which I believe is a growing problem, and protecting operations and methods in the intelligence area, which have to be protected,” he says.

Surveillance under the business-records provisions has recently spiked. The Justice Department’s official disclosure on its use of the Patriot Act, delivered to Congress in April, reported that the government asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for approval to collect business records 96 times in 2010 — up from just 21 requests the year before. The court didn’t reject a single request. But it “modified” those requests 43 times, indicating to some Patriot-watchers that a broadening of the provision is underway.

“The FISA Court is a pretty permissive body, so that suggests something novel or particularly aggressive, not just in volume, but in the nature of the request,” says Michelle Richardson, the ACLU’s resident Patriot Act lobbyist. “No one has tipped their hand on this in the slightest. But we’ve come to the conclusion that this is some kind of bulk collection. It wouldn’t be surprising to me if it’s some kind of internet or communication-records dragnet.” (Full disclosure: My fiancĂ©e works for the ACLU.)

The FBI deferred comment on any secret interpretation of the Patriot Act to the Justice Department. The Justice Department said it wouldn’t have any comment beyond a bit of March congressional testimony from its top national security official, Todd Hinnen, who presented the type of material collected as far more individualized and specific: “driver’s license records, hotel records, car-rental records, apartment-leasing records, credit card records, and the like.”

But that’s not what Udall sees. He warned in a Tuesday statement about the government’s “unfettered” access to bulk citizen data, like “a cellphone company’s phone records.” In a Senate floor speech on Tuesday, Udall urged Congress to restrict the Patriot Act’s business-records seizures to “terrorism investigations” — something the ostensible counterterrorism measure has never required in its nearly 10-year existence.

Indeed, Hinnen allowed himself an out in his March testimony, saying that the business-record provision “also” enabled “important and highly sensitive intelligence-collection operations” to take place. Wheeler speculates those operations include “using geolocation data from cellphones to collect information on the whereabouts of Americans” — something our sister blog Threat Level has reported on extensively.

It’s worth noting that Wyden is pushing a bill providing greater privacy protections for geolocation info.

For now, Wyden’s considering his options ahead of the Patriot Act vote on Thursday. He wants to compel as much disclosure as he can on the secret interpretation, arguing that a shadow broadening of the Patriot Act sets a dangerous precedent.

“I’m talking about instances where the government is relying on secret interpretations of what the law says without telling the public what those interpretations are,” Wyden says, “and the reliance on secret interpretations of the law is growing.”

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How nice for our government to be able to secretly reinterpret laws as they see fit.  How I would love to tell my bank I have decided to reinterpret the law which commands repayment on the loan for my car purchase to mean that I do not have to pay for it after all.  I am sure they would be thrilled to hear that, as would the court and repossession agent from hell that would surely hound me.  Apparently, only governments are permitted to know the depths and legitimacy of deceiving populations.

How can any self-respecting progressive look at this assault on our Constitution, from the leadership of both parties, and not be outraged?  Where are the teabaggers, where are the right-wing libertarians, where are the civil libertarians on this issue?  And why is there little debate (with few honorable exceptions) about this in Congress?  It takes someone like Senator Wyden and even Rand Paul (yes, I give him his due on this issue) to finally state the obvious, but they are a minority in Congress (and in the case of Wyden he cowered to Senate Majority Leader Reid and pulled the more transparent amendments to the Patriot Act that he originally proposed).  The entire leadership of the Democratic Party in Congress voted to extend the Patriot Act.  The same with the Republicans.  In the so-called mainstream media, there has been too little discussion on this issue, excepting Cenk Uygur from The Young Turks on MSNBC.

Think about what is happening to our republic.  Right now, the POTUS could claim you to be a terrorist, without charge, without presentment, without indictment, and have you monitored, arrested, tortured, and/or killed, on his orders alone.  How is this different than the powers given to a government like North Korea?  How is this different than the excesses that occurred in Stalin's Russia or in Hitler's Germany?  If your government can monitor, arrest, torture, and kill you without charge, without cause, without warrant, without anything other than the word of one government bureaucrat, ladies and gentlemen, you no longer live in a free society.  You can call it semi-free, semi-dictatorial, whatever you want, but it is not a free society worth its name.

Consider also the Patriot Act was passed weeks after 9/11, with that terrorist attack used as the backdrop and claimed rationale for why we had to temporarily suspend our Bill of Rights.  The planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is comfortably tucked away in Guantanamo Bay, and the leader of the organization that attacked us, Osama bin Laden, swimming with the fishes in the Persian Gulf.  By the CIA's own estimates, there are probably no more than a few hundred hardcore members of al-Qaeda in Pakistan left.  How in the world can we continue to justify allowing the NSA to catalog every one of our phone calls?  It certainly did nothing to prevent the Fort Hood shooter.  What is next, just have the federal government monitor all internet activity?  Why not, that is what the Chinese government has been trying to do for the past decade, and we certainly seem to be catching up with the PRC in the manner in which we spy on our citizens.

What President Obama has done in signing the extension of the Patriot Act is momentous.  It is as momentous as the day George Bush originally signed it into law because ten years later we have pretty much crushed our enemies.  At this point, there is nothing left to rationalize it except future hypothetical attacks by people we do not know about.  If that is the case, then what is the point of having privacy or a Bill of Rights at all?  If one takes what our president has told us, none.  And that is the lesson.  We are now moving over to normalizing the elimination of our rights as standard operating procedure for federal law enforcement and national security agencies.  For all intents and purposes, the Fourth Amendment is a dead letter.  Its utility is in name only.

And what is next in line for this slouching towards a praetorian state?  Government collection of all of our DNA at birth?  You could certainly use that as a rationale to solve a lot of unsolved crimes in this country, since familial DNA matches will bring up a lot of hits on CODIS.  How about having GPS devices on our population, beyond the criminals and parolees?  That would make it a lot easier to find suspected terrorists who have come to the attention of the FBI.  You know, mass killers and crazed bombardiers like peace activists and pacifists, whose anti-war activities have put them under anti-terrorist federal monitoring over the past several years (and without pesky things like warrants or cause to get in the way of the predilections of our friends in law enforcement).

You might think I am being conspiratorial about this, but I am not.  Who twenty years ago would have ever envisioned that the POTUS would have an assassination list that would include American citizens, to be killed without charge and on the orders of the commander-in-chief?  I never would have anticipated that development.  Just imagine, we threw a gasket at the thought of Nixon finding out about a break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters, and trying to cover it up, but say nothing of the the crimes committed by our presidents over the past ten years (crimes that have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and repealed the liberties of our entire population).  Who would have ever thought before 9/11 that our government, through the NSA in Fort Meade, would catalog all of our phone calls and monitor around 10% of our internet activity on any given day (without warrant or cause)?  

If someone sneaks into your mailbox and reads your mail, he or she could be prosecuted under federal law and go to jail for years, but that same government sneaks into your emails every day, without invitation, without your knowledge, and without accountability (indeed, the law now allows our government to selectively re-interpret the act to do as it pleases).  A decade ago, I would have thought such possibilities the product of a warped mind.  Not anymore, sadly, and  unless the people of this country rise up, en masse, by the millions (people of all ideological persuasions) against what is taking place, or until (if ever) the Supreme Court bothers to step in and rein in these abuses, you can kiss goodbye your freedoms.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Still Here: The Non-Rapture Post-Mortem

Curse ye, Harold Camping.  Now, I have to get ready for work next week.  My student tuition debt payments thank you for the disappointing evening.  May the totally awesome goddess Juno strike you down.


Now for something not completely different, and in homage to those who thought we were going to be raptured, I introduce John R. Butler's Hand of The Almighty.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bye, Bye, Osama, and Adios to Our Souls


I am not a cheering type, and in spite of the noise being made on t.v., radios, and the streets (seemingly a contest as to who can beat their chests and scream the loudest), the death of Osama bin Laden does nothing for this country but settle a score on a massacre in which we already had in custody the actual planner and organizer of the attack.

There is one thing that has happened as a result of this assassination, which is what this was, regardless of what else we call it.  It now sets the precedence that our government (and by extension any government with the power to get away with it) can legitimately invade the national territory of any other country and kill someone that we do not like.  This is not to defend bin Laden.  He needs no defense.  As a person, he lived a wretched and deluded life.  He killed thousands and because of that I cannot find it within me to mourn him (anymore than Father Geoghan).

However odious he may have been in life, however, we are still or we are supposed to be living in something like a free society, a society predicated on the rule of law.  Can one say that Osama (who was not even born in this country) was any worse of a person morally than Jeffrey Dahmer?  Notice, Dahmer received a trial for his acts of murder, but if you are labeled a terrorist one need not worry about such distinctions anymore.  You can be branded a 'combatant' deserving instantaneous death, regardless of whether you are a combatant at the time of your death.  Ask yourself, if being unarmed in a house in Pakistan, without a uniform or country, operating as a private killer, makes you a combatant on par with a member of the Imperial Japanese Army at Iwo Jima, how can one then be upset at any terrorist who would rationalize the slaughter of a Westerner on the grounds that we subsidize the governments that oppress them, and as such are 'combatants' who should be killed?  That is the slippery slope that terrorism and wars against terrorism bring upon a population.

Yes, I know the response and have already heard it before writing this post.  So, dear pinko embryo-eater, what would you have done about Osama then?  Well, first, I would not invade another country to kill him.  That was our excuse for going into Afghanistan and Iraq, and you can see how that worked out.  We have paid over $3 trillion in the past decade, killed hundreds of thousands, including our own soldiers, for a war to supposedly get one man.  Tell me, now that bin Laden is dead, why are we still in Afghanistan?  To support President Karzai, who had to rig his last elections and whose brother is the largest heroin dealer in Asia (and living off the dole of the American taxpayer)?

No, I would have done something much different, other than not wasting a few trillion dollars invading countries, killing people, and turning my country into a praetorian state, shredding the very rights in our Constitution that we supposedly hold so dear.  I would have an international arrest warrant put out on Mr. bin Laden, impose sanctions on the countries harboring him (I should add, that includes our wonderful 'friends' in the Pakistani government that the American taxpayer gave $30 billion to since 9/11), and do something truly extraordinary.  I would have prosecuted him in a court of law, which is what you do with a murderer.

For those who think the law is a triviality and manifestation of bad intentions (thanks be to the efforts of nefarious types like James Madison), how would all of those fellow Americans cheering the past couple of weeks have reacted had the Cuban government sent in its version of a special forces squad (if this was ever possible) to openly assassinate Orlando Bosch?  Yes, that is right, the same Orlando Bosch who, as a right-wing anti-Castro activist, decided it best to blow up a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing 78 people.  We, our government, the one way pay taxes to, trained Mr. Bosch, had an agent attend one the meetings in Washington DC, in which the said terrorist planned the bombing, and took this mass murderer in because of his past training from the CIA--thereby protecting Bosch from imprisonment, to which he lived out the last few decades of life as a free/plane-bombing terrorist.  Most Americans have no idea who this person was, sadly.  Well, what if the Cuban government had (without our consent) come into our country, in the name of vengeance (i.e., justice) for those innocent lives Bosch snuffed out, and shot a couple of bullets into his chest and head?  How many Americans would be cheering this?  As much as I disliked the man, I certainly would not have been one of them, anymore than with bin Laden.

Once we replace constitutions and the law with special operations, it is but a stepping stone for that same government to turn its barrels on its own population.  As I write this, and it is not the first time I have complained about it, our POTUS (the so-called pro-Islamic socialist) has compiled a hit list that includes American citizens, who are to be killed on sight and on the unilateral orders of our Commander in Chief.  No trials, no formal legal accusation, presentment, grand juries.  Nothing.  All it takes to be included on this terrorist hit list is the whim of our President.  

If this is the way a supposed liberal governs, do you think it will ever get any better under a Republican or subsequent Democratic administration?  Instinctively, we should already know the answer to this question.  It is the same as those who wondered several years ago what it would take to get a repeal of the Patriot Act, and how much longer would we tolerate allowing the NSA to catalog all of our phones calls (since October 2001) without so much as a court order or cause?  Now that Osama is dead, we have the answer.  Unless there is an intervention by the Supreme Court, our government is going to continue the suspension of our Constitution.  Our growing police state, the government monitoring of our lives, and periodic killing of the citizenry without charge, will resume and become a normalized, permanent feature of life in this republic.

The saddest part of all is that this is an issue that should unite the right and left (the so-called radical individualists on the libertarian right and the civil libertarian left), but so far it has not.  When the US House voted on a resolution announcing its love and approval of Osama's killing, not a single member had the guts to vote against it (no, dear right-wing Left, not even your beloved Ron Paul).  Only four members voted 'present', while the rest tripped over themselves to celebrate extralegal state killing under the guise of justice and anti-terrorism.  This is what we have become.

Whether or not the cheering, happy throngs of demonstrators in this country realize it they are pumping their fists in approval for something far beyond the death of Osama bin Laden.  It is the loss of our way of life as a constitutional republic.