At the height of the 9/11 panic the Patriot Act was rushed into law giving the government (though really the executive branch) wide latitude to spy on its own citizens. Anything to stop terrorists, Bill of Rights be damned.
There’s a long history of the government using the fears of the populace, often deliberately whipped into a froth, to justify overreach and the acquisition of more power which is then abused. After the Russian Revolution the Palmer raids set out to purge Un-American Americans, which happened again in the McCarthy era with its blacklists and under the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign of spying, harassment and violence against “subversives” in the 1960s, including civil rights activists and anti-war protesters. And no greatest hits collection would be complete without the WWII internment of Japanese Americans.
The Patriot Act was clearly named to imply that anyone opposed to its broad license to invade the privacy of citizens was not a patriot, but was rather aiding and abetting the enemy. That has become a harder sell after the debacles of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, Abu Ghraib, the failure to detect domestic terrorists, to predict the rise the Arab Spring or the coming of ISIS.
Though the Snowden revelations have shown that the government was spying on all of us in unprecedented ways, and on allies like Angela Merkel (not exactly a likely terrorist), no evidence has emerged to suggest all this data gathering has made us safe from terrorists. It has managed to alienate a lot of friends and make us suspicious of our own government.
So much so that liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans combined to protest a reauthorization of the Patriot Act. Ultimately they fell short of success. The only-slightly modified replacement is just as laughably lopsided in favor of government prying, and just as cynically named – The USA Freedom Act. Full name, “Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act of 2015.”
We’re all for freedom, aren’t we? But in this case the question has to be, freedom for whom? The government will still be free to spy on us, and we still won’t be free of their invasions of our privacy, won’t even know the extent of that invasion. Under the new dispensation, the phone companies will gather and stockpile metadata on all of us and the government will have to ask to see it. Is this an improvement? Do we really think an unholy alliance between NSA and Verizon will protect our freedom?
We are assured no sharing of data will take place without a warrant approved by the Fisa court, but it has shown itself to be a lapdog that never refuses to roll over for the government. The estimable Bob Scheer, whose latest book, “They Know Everything about You,” addresses this issue, notes that Chief Justice Roberts, no ACLU civil liberties leftie, has said the Fourth Amendment encapsulates the reason the colonies went to war in 1776. It says, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…”
Needless to say, The Freedom Act radically abridges this freedom. What is the probable cause for using supercomputers to troll through every phone call by every citizen of the country? Warrants are expected to be limited to a specific, suspected crime, not unlimited licenses to conduct fishing expeditions in search of a possible crime-to-be.
And, just to show that those who don’t trust the government to behave within the law aren’t crazy, listen to this. Four hours after President Obama agreed to sign the only-slightly less draconian Freedom Act, his lawyers asked the compliant Fisa court to ignore a ruling by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals that found so-called bulk surveillance illegal.
In short, the government will insist and connive and contrive to be free to do whatever it wants, no matter what Congress, courts or the people want. King George would feel right at home.