One nation, under surveillance

Paul Schwietering
By Paul Schwietering

There were those of us who, while observing the hysteria that gripped Washington in the aftermath of 9-11, warned that the so-called “Patriot Act” was among the most unpatriotic bills to have been brought before the Congress since the Sedition Act (during the presidency of John Adams, Sr.,) and that parts of it were blatantly unconstitutional.  There were many others who agreed with this viewpoint but didn’t speak out for fear of being branded “soft on terrorism.”

It will be recalled that immediately after 9-11, many Americans were in a state of shock.  There were Cabinet members and advisors in the administration of George Bush, Jr., who saw this as an opportunity to get anything they wanted. The leadership of both parties in the House had worked out a compromise from the original bill that Attorney General John Ashcroft had submitted to the House.  In the “compromise” (which some of us thought was still unconstitutional), some of the worst features of Ashcroft’s original draft were deleted or modified, although it still contained most of its provisions unaltered and was still considered by many to be a threat to our civil liberties, though less of a threat.

It will be recalled that Ashcroft proceeded to throw a temper tantrum and he demanded that the Congress scrap all the work it had put into the “compromise” bill and vote on his bill without a word of it being altered.  Since the Republicans had a majority in both the House and the Senate at that time, Ashcroft’s original bill was what both the House and Senate voted on.  All but a handful of Democrats voted with the Republicans to pass Ashcroft’s bill, lest they be called “soft on terrorism.”

After the passage of the “Patriot Act,” the administration of George Bush, Jr. started a number of electronic surveillance programs (TIA “Total Information Awareness,” etc.), which were predicated on the theory that the way to “fight terrorism” was to gather all available information about everyone and then sift through it all to catch terrorists.

The problems with this are (1) It was not a lack of information that prevented the FBI from foiling the 9-11 plot; it was the incompetence of the FBI bureaucracy.  An agent in Minnesota tried repeatedly to get her bosses to pay attention, but her warnings were ignored.  And (2) When you have too large a quantity of information, it becomes impossible to sort.

Obviously, if an administration wanted to gather embarrassing (though not criminal) personal information about its political opponents, programs such as those described above are the stuff of dreams.  After all, it’s so much more efficient to eavesdrop on an opponent electronically than, say, to burglarize a psychiatrist’s office.

We fast forward slightly more than a decade to the present day, and we find that every phone call in the U.S.A. is being monitored and that an Internet surveillance program (“Prism”) collects all e-mails, chat services, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers, video conferencing and logins. The Washington Post reports that in the Internet surveillance, “analysts search the system using terms that predict a target’s ‘foreignness’ with at least 51 percent confidence.”

President Obama defended the surveillance programs, claiming that he came into office “with a healthy skepticism about these programs,” but that his team had evaluated them and concluded that “they help us prevent terrorist attacks.”  However, two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon and Mark Udall (D) of Colorado, issued a joint response to the President’s remarks: “We believe the large-scale collection of this information by the government has a very significant impact on Americans’ privacy, whether senior government officials recognize that fact or not.”

According to The New York Times, “Senator Richard J. Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat and an Obama ally from Illinois, rebuffed the President’s contention that Congress had been kept abreast of the programs, saying only a handful of top leaders are regularly briefed.”

“‘To say that there’s congressional approval suggests a level of information and oversight that’s just not there,’ he said in an interview.  He added that the sort of data mining revealed in recent days ‘really pushes the role of government to the limit.’”

The following day, (Saturday) in what was apparently an attempt to push back on Senator Durbin’s claims that there was little, if any, congressional oversight of the surveillance, an administration spokesman claimed that the administration had held 13 briefings for members of Congress since 2009.  Senator Durbin responded by drawing a distinction between the holding of such briefings and the informed consent of Congress.  He indicated that very few lawmakers avail themselves of such briefings, and only the most senior leaders are kept fully abreast of intelligence activities.

“You can count on two hands the number of people who really know,” he said.  The administration has not made any response to Senator Durbin’s rebuttal.

“Advocates of congressional intervention said public pressure could revive legislation to at least force more transparency about the programs.  ‘The timing has never been better to revisit our past decisions,’ said Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah).”  Senator Rand Paul (R.) of Kentucky stated that the surveillance is unconstitutional and indicated that he will file a lawsuit to put an end to it.

However, with the exception of Senator Durbin, the leadership of both parties seems to want to leave things as they are.  According to The New York Times, “Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic Majority Leader, dismissed concerns.  ‘Everyone should just calm down and understand this isn’t anything that is brand new,’ he said.”

It seems to me that when something that is unconstitutional is being done and the excuse offered is “This isn’t anything new,” the correct response should be “all the worse!”  Although I voted for Mr. Obama twice and would again (because the alternatives were so much worse), this is one more instance in which he is acting more like a Republican than a Democrat.  It is extremely disappointing.

Paul Schwietering is a former Democratic state central committeeman for the 14th state senate district.