A Bunch Of Politicians Who Complain About Trump's Authoritarian Tendencies Just Gave Him 6 Years To Warrantlessly Spy On Americans
from the because-reasons dept
As was widely expected after Tuesday’s close vote on cloture, the Senate officially voted to renew (in a somewhat expanded way) Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act by a vote of 65 to 34. That also means a few of those who voted against cloture switched over and voted for the program, including Senators Ted Cruz and Chuck Schumer. President Trump will almost certainly sign the bill shortly, despite confusing basically everyone last week by tweeting out complaints about the program, despite his White House vehemently supporting it.
Trump’s confusion isn’t all that surprising. What is surprising is just how many people who have been complaining and warning about Trump made this possible. In the House, vocal Trump critics including Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell were among those who voted for this bill which, again, gives the FBI the power to spy on Americans without warrants via the collection of content (not metadata) swept up by the NSA. While defenders of the program keep insisting the program cannot be used to “target” Americans, they leave out that a ridiculous amount of American content is swept up into this collection, which can then be sifted through without a warrant, including a huge amount of communications of Americans.
Over on the Senate side, things were even more ridiculous. Senator Jeff Flake voted for cloture, helping to end (the already non-existing) debate on such surveillance, and blocking any amendments. And then, the very next morning, went on the Senate floor to slam the President, compare him to Stalin, and warn that our democracy may not survive. Again, this was mere hours after Senator Flake voted to give more surveillance powers to the President he was about to compare to Stalin.
Or how about Dianne Feinstein? It may be no surprise that Feinstein voted to continue and expand surveillance — she has a long history of doing exactly that. But just about an hour before voting for cloture, Feinstein herself introduced an amendment that would have required a warrant to search the corpus of data collected under 702. And then she voted to block that amendment from even being voted on. Let me repeat that, because it’s just that insane: Feinstein introduced an amendment to the 702 renewal, that would have required a warrant to sniff through the data… and then voted against allowing that amendment to be heard and voted on. Within an hour or so. And, since cloture needed 60 votes and just squeezed through with those 60 votes… Feinstein could have changed the debate herself. But chose not to.
Or how about Senator Claire McCaskill. She was the final vote for cloture and took over an hour after the vote was called to actually reach the floor. She was the actual deciding vote, as, if she voted against it, the cloture vote would have had only 59 yaes, and the debate would have continued, and amendments proposed. Trump has been loudly denouncing McCaskill for months as she’s facing a tough reelection campaign. And her response was to deny any further debate or amendments and to vote to give Trump more surveillance powers.
These are not the only ones. Many vocal critics of the President just handed him much greater power to warrantlessly spy on Americans — something the President (in a confused way) complained about concerning what he believed (incorrectly) was illegal spying on his own campaign.
Zack Whittaker at ZDnet has also compiled a list of elected officials who had put out earlier statements promising to reform surveillance… only to then vote for this program. It includes both Swalwell and Feinstein mentioned above, but many others as well.
Over at Lawfare, a site that has long defended basically every aspect of the surveillance state, reliable surveillance defenders Jack Goldsmith and Susan Hennessey tried to defend the paradox of not trusting Trump, but giving him the ability to warrantlessly spy on Americans. The crux of it is basically… “we don’t trust Trump, but there are good people in the intelligence and law enforcement communities and they’d never abuse these powers.”
More broadly, one of the underappreciated developments in the post-Snowden-revelations era is the absence of credible allegations of political or venal use of 702 authorities. In essence, the public evidence confirms that the problems that used to bedevil secret electronic surveillance through the Hoover/Nixon era—namely, senior political figures deploying intelligence agencies and tools for inappropriate, abusive political purposes—have been resolved by a robust legal regime of oversight and reporting. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren points to the surveillance abuses directed at Martin Luther King Jr. to argue against 702, she actually highlights the opposite point: the massive transparency, both voluntary and involuntary, over the past few years about how Section 702 operates shows that it has not been abused for domestic political spying and implies that the 40 years of post-Hoover legal reforms are largely a success (though not without hiccups). The fact that President Trump has not focused his abusive energies on intelligence collection is a testament to the efficacy of the legal and cultural constraints on electronic surveillance.
Not surprisingly, Marcy Wheeler rips these claims to shreds in a response on her own blog, noting that beyond factual errors in the piece, it more or less ignores the FBI’s role in all of this. Even if we grant the (incorrect) claim that the NSA doesn’t abuse this data, that’s not at all clear on the FBI side — especially when the FBI refuses to provide any details at all:
You can’t pass a bill that effectively blesses FBI’s use of back door searches on Americans about whom it has no evidence of any wrongdoing, while admitting you don’t know how FBI conducts those back door searches, and make any claim to conduct adequate oversight. Rather, the bill permits FBI to continue practices it has stubbornly refused to brief Congress on, rather than demanding that FBI brief Congress first, so Congress can impose any restrictions that might be necessary to adequately protect Americans.
Furthermore, Wheeler notes that Hennessey and Goldsmith completely ignore how this gives Attorney General Jeff Sessions incredible unreviewable power to make use of this warrantless data for criminal prosecutions, hiding where he got the information from.
But it’s the unreviewable authority for Jeff Sessions bit that is the real problem.
We know, for example, that painting Black Lives Matter as a national security threat is key to the Trump-Sessions effort to criminalize race. We also know that Trump has accused his opponents of treason, all for making critical comments about Trump.
This bill gives Sessions unreviewable authority to decide that a BLM protest organized using or whistleblowing relying on Tor, discovered by collection done in the name of hunting Russian spies, can be referred for prosecution. The fact that the underlying data predicating any prosecution was obtained without a warrant under 702 would — in part because this bill doesn’t add teeth to FISA notice — ensure that courts would never learn the genesis of the prosecution. Even if a court somehow managed to do so, however, it could never deem the domestic surveillance unlawful because the bill gives Jeff Sessions the unreviewable authority to treat dissent as a national security threat.
This is such an obviously bad idea, and it is being supported by people who talk incessantly about the threat that Trump and Sessions present. Yet, rather than addressing the issue head on (which I doubt Hennessey could legally do in any case), they simply remain silent about what is the biggest complaint from privacy activists, that this gives a racist, vindictive Attorney General far more authority than he should have, and does so without fixing the inadequate protections for criminal defendants along the way.
And, now, it appears that (unless Fox News somehow intervenes again) the President will sign this bill. EFF has put out an open letter about how awful this is, and how it intends to fight this in court. But, this was a major missed opportunity, and what’s most incredible and disappointing is how many people who complain about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies were central to making it possible.