Posted on Sunday, September 20th, 2009 at 3:50 pm
Author: Sarah Jaffe
The Obama administration might be bogged down in health care fights right now, but another battle looms on the horizon, one that caused problems on the campaign trail and continues to raise hackles throughout the political spectrum. Key provisions of the PATRIOT Act download Kicking the Dog dvd , former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s magnum opus of intrusion into Americans’ civil liberties, are set to expire at the end of this year, and several senators have introduced legislation that would make changes in the existing laws to provide stronger protections against abuse by the government.
The PATRIOT Act was squirted through Congress in the hectic weeks after September 11, and though it was ostensibly designed to fight terrorism, in reality it gave a justice department, at the time run by a religious right-wing ideologue, wide discretion in listening to phone calls, collecting financial records, and checking out what people read at the library. At the time Democrat Russell Feingold was the only senator to vote against the bill, and Feingold is behind the newest proposed amendments.
The JUSTICE Act would amend the PATRIOT Act and FISA, including the controversial FISA Amendments Act, which proved troublesome for then-candidate Obama during last summer’s run-up to the election―his participation in the compromise was seen as a flip-flop from his strong earlier position against the bill.
In a statement, Feingold said:
“The JUSTICE Act permits the government to conduct necessary surveillance, but within a framework of accountability and oversight. It ensures both that our government has the tools to keep us safe, and that the privacy and civil liberties of innocent Americans will be protected. When he was in the Senate, President Obama was a strong ally on these issues, and I look forward to working with his administration to find common ground on commonsense reforms.
Among the reforms that the JUSTICE Act would enact would be a complete repeal of the retroactive immunity granted to telecommunications companies as part of the FAA. Immunity for these corporations gave them no incentive to put up any sort of fight―when the government asked for your information, they could hand it over without worrying about whether the request was justified or legal. Combining a repeal of immunity with narrower descriptions of what information the justice department is authorized to collect and from whom would provide much wider protections for individual citizens.
The bill would also increase oversight of the National Security Letters, which allow the government to collect information without warrants, and require more public disclosure of how the letters are used. The legalspeak involved in this debate can be head-spinning, but at the heart of it is a simple question: do we want the government to be able to listen to our conversations, read our e-mail and search our homes without having to report to anyone?
With all the talk of fascism and increased government powers in the protests around health care reform, one would think that there would have been a more sustained outcry about the PATRIOT Act, FISA and the like. After all, rather than providing a service, these acts truly allow government intrusion into one’s life. But the xenophobia at the time the PATRIOT Act was passed was directed outward, at some nebulously-defined “terrorism” that had brown skin and a Muslim name. Now our president has brown skin and a Muslim middle name and the xenophobia is directed at him.
With the shift in parties in power in Washington, it can be easy for Democrats to shrug and say, well, it’s not Ashcroft reading my mail, Obama’s not going to go after us, is he? And Republicans are suddenly pontificating about government intrusion into people’s personal lives―a line usually used by feminists and our supporters when defending women’s reproductive choices. The fight has shifted a bit, and those on the right may be more interested in limiting government surveillance power than they were under Bush.
Jon Pincus, CEO of Seattle-based startup Qworky and organizer with Get FISA Right, notes that the civil liberties crowd is in better shape this time around to fight and push through the JUSTICE Act and other reforms. The Obama administration has signaled its openness to some reforms, and freshmen senators like Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico are involved in the push for reform (Udall replaced Republican Pete Domenici, a key player in the U.S. Attorney firing scandal that haunted Bush’s second term).
In February, Pincus noted that the Get FISA Right activism, which started on Obama’s own campaign Web site, was for many people the moment when they realized that Obama wasn’t going to be the perfect candidate. Instead, they made a decision to continue supporting him, but to use his own campaign tools to organize pressure on him. Now that he’s in the White House and the Democrats have expanded their control over Congress, they were in many ways the model for the internal opposition that the left has developed for Obama-administration policies that tip too far toward the right.
The support for PATRIOT Act and FISA reforms, though, is and should be broad-based. The government is not an organ of one party or another, and its intrusions into our privacy are not excusable because the party in power is supposedly on our side. Tea party protesters with signs proclaiming “Keep the Government Out” should be as fervent about surveillance and wiretapping as are leftist civil libertarians. Government services aren’t dangerous, but government surveillance certainly can be.
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