Privacy advocates are understandably outraged over yesterday’s revelations of widespread spying on Americans by the Obama administration. Coming on top of last month’s allegations of spying on AP reporters, IRS misdeeds, and Benghazi bungling, it appears more and more as though the wheels have come off the Obama administration.
At first it looked as though maybe it was Republicans continuing to make mountains out of molehills. After all, they’ve been screaming about Benghazi for months. But eventually it became apparent that there had been a lot of mistakes, that additional security had been requested by the consulate but not received, that aid had been sent but then called back. Perhaps a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing. Not atypical with huge bureaucracies.
The IRS thing? Nothing so obvious would have been ordered directly by the president. Call it a few overzealous IRS workers acting … well, overzealously. Not that the Republican organizations in question were blameless. Technically they might not have been entitled to the tax breaks they were applying for, but hey, it was worth a try. The IRS is so bloated, the tax code is so insanely complex, enforcement is so spotty and erratic …
The seizure of AP reporters’ phone records? For security reasons? Come on. Maybe one reporter did wander into a gray area. Or maybe not. Maybe his reports were a threat to security — not that we’d ever know, of course, because that stuff is secret. But that didn’t justify the massive intrusion into and seizure of hundreds of reporters’ records. Were they warrantless seizures? Were the warrants so overly broad as to include virtually everything from everybody? We may never know. But the action was a clear threat to freedom of the press. Not to mention Obama’s promised “transparency in government,” which was called into question when a subsequent meeting with media representatives was declared “off the record.”
Then Wednesday the dam broke. The Guardian (why is it always the British media and not ours?) reported that phone records of all Verizon customers in the US, under some vague authority conferred by the Patriot Act, were being collected by the US government. Not just outbound international calls. Not just foreigners calling into the country. Not just people suspected of criminal activities. All customers, all calls, on the largest phone network in the country.
“Necessary for national security.” “Stopped a potential terrorist attack.” Really? One potential attack? That’s the justification for spying on millions — millions — of Americans?
But it didn’t end there:
In a new development, the National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies in real time, obtaining audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails and other information, various news outlets reported. The program is code-named PRISM.
We’ve been told all this information-gathering is to establish a database on tens of millions of American citizens so the government can refer to it in case they hear of a potential threat like Tamerlan Tsarnaev. What ever happened to having to prove a valid need for information before a warrant is issued and before information is gathered!? Before innocent Americans are spied on? Before our calls are monitored? Before our Internet activities are tracked, and recorded, and stored in some secret federal database? This is not, as Pres. Obama said today, the “right balance” between national security and the right to privacy.
All of this confirms that Senators Mark Udall (D-CO) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) were right to be concerned when, in March 15, 2012, they wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the government’s questionable interpretation of its powers under the Patriot Act. They said, in part:
We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. …
… Americans expect their government to operate within the boundaries of publicly-understood law, and as voters they have a need and a right to know how the law is being interpreted, so that they can ratify or reject decisions made on their behalf. …
The letter also addressed the issue of whether Congress is in fact kept “fully briefed” as administration officials have claimed in the last two days.
We’ve said before that the Patriot Act was a huge, unconstitutional overreach by President Bush and Congress in the wake of 9/11. Now it appears that President Obama has allowed government agencies, using the Patriot Act as pretext, to continue an increasingly broad intrusion into the private lives of American citizens in direct violation of our constitutional rights.
If you aren’t outraged by all this, you haven’t been paying attention.
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