Saturday, November 05, 2005

I told you so, in 2001. Now we are stuck with a bad law that is being abused.

Remember the claims made by supporters of the 'Patriot Act' when it was first pushed through Congress, who claimed that people opposed to the act were paranoid, because it was only intended to make it easier for our government to spy on suspected terrorists? They claimed that if someone was not a terrorist or suspected of some tie to terrorists, there was nothing to worry about.

Well, as many suspected, an investigation by the Washington Post now confirms that those were empty words designed to get through a bill about government control of individuals under the guise of fighting terrorists.

The FBI came calling in Windsor, Conn., this summer with a document marked for delivery by hand. On Matianuk Avenue, across from the tennis courts, two special agents found their man. They gave George Christian the letter, which warned him to tell no one, ever, what it said.

Under the shield and stars of the FBI crest, the letter directed Christian to surrender "all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person" who used a specific computer at a library branch some distance away. Christian, who manages digital records for three dozen Connecticut libraries, said in an affidavit that he configures his system for privacy. But the vendors of the software he operates said their databases can reveal the Web sites that visitors browse, the e-mail accounts they open and the books they borrow....

The Connecticut case affords a rare glimpse of an exponentially growing practice of domestic surveillance under the USA Patriot Act, which marked its fourth anniversary on Oct. 26. "National security letters," created in the 1970s for espionage and terrorism investigations, originated as narrow exceptions in consumer privacy law, enabling the FBI to review in secret the customer records of suspected foreign agents. The Patriot Act, and Bush administration guidelines for its use, transformed those letters by permitting clandestine scrutiny of U.S. residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.

The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms. The letters -- one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people -- are extending the bureau's reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans.

So apparently, now you do not have to be a terrorist, or have anything at all to do with terrorism, but simply be an ordinary American citizen, and the FBI now has the authority to use surveillance methods that should be reserved only for spies and terrorists.

There are many dangers here. First and foremost, it involves the government making it their business to know everyone's private business. As long as there is no reason to suspect that you or I are doing something illegal (and such a search once 'probable cause' has been established has always been allowed), what we do, who we talk to, what we spend our money on, and other details like this are not the government's business.

Second, there is certainly a potential here for the FBI to learn information that could be used for personal or political blackmail, thereby allowing the agency to potentially compromise people who the FBI might find it useful to either manipulate, force out of the picture, or gain complete control over. There is no guarantee that this information won't be used in this manner, and the fact that it is being collected at all makes one think it very well may be (after all, what other use is there for keeping track of internet, phone and bank records for people with no connection to terrorism? And if they have no plans to use this information, why do they want it?)

I do also have to say this (just something I've observed, but I've heard it from enough conservatives that I'm pretty sure a lot of them think this way): As long as Bill Clinton was the President, they railed against increased Federal power (for example, opposing the terrorism bill that was passed after the OKC bombing-- and they were right, most of what was in that bill really didn't make us any safer, it just gave the government more tools to pry into your life.) But somehow, they 'trust' the Bush government to not do what the Washington Post is now reporting it is doing.

And at that, even if they WERE right to 'trust in Bush,' the stupidity and short-sightedness that pervades these conservatives who support giving Bush carte blanche to impose more and more loose interpretations on more and more laws like this is truly amazing. These expansive new laws and policies will be there to be used and abused by every single President in the future. And at least a few of them are sure to be scoundrels, if our history is any guide.

We should take the war on terror seriously, but we already had (pre-Patriot act) the authority to investigate, conduct surveillance and otherwise collect evidence against those who we had reason to believe are spies, terrorists or otherwise a threat. But the chance that if our government collects a mountain of evidence on everybody, out of all of this information, some profile somewhere will just suggest 'terrorist,' so we will suddenly catch them, is vanishingly small, but the surrender of freedom we gave up is huge, and permanent.

And, don't just limit it to the surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act. The government now has, under this adminstration, the right to 1: conduct secret tribunals, including those which can sentence to death, 2: the right to torture suspects, and 3: the right to detain a U.S. citizen (not yet officially accused 'dirty bomber' Jose Padilla) indefinitely without filing any charges.

Secret surveillance of ordinary citizens. Indefinite detentions, torture, and secret tribunals that are empowered to sentence people to death. Wasn't this what we were supposed to be 'better than' during the Cold War? Josef Stalin has to be laughing at us from hell.

those who would trade freedom for security deserve neither freedom nor security.

-- Thomas Jefferson


Mark said...

I agreed with the concept of the Patriot act for a short term. The danger lies in the long term effects. We may trust our agencies to not abuse the expanded powers now, but what about 20 years from now.

This is why the president and the congress put into the patriot act time limits ("sunset dates") and strict renewal procedures. It is reasonable to expect that within two or three more years from now that major portions of the Patriot act will be retired according to their "sunset" provisions. If we allow these powers to continue unabated, we run the risk of abuses occurring.

Some portions of the patriot act have already been extended beyond their first "sunset" date. As Americans, we should all watch our government closely on this one.

Eli Blake said...

The problem, Mark, is that not all provisions of the act even were subject to sunset, and the way government works, once they have the power as a routine matter, they will simply change the law so that it becomes routine (or didn't we learn anything from the 'your SSN is only for employment' line)?

I have rarely seen the FBI or any other similar agency volunarily give up a power once they have it. And as we see from this story, the power to spy on people is already being abused, and it's been what? Four years?

Barbi said...

I agree with all of the points you make here, Eli. I was against the Patriot Act in the beginning and still am. In my opinion, it goes against my constitutional right to be left alone, and any laws that are contrary to the constitution are illegal. This was a ruse by this crooked MISadministration to promote a police state in this country.

fitnessfreak said...

Love your post. I totally agree with everything.