by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
patriot act, privcy

Where's The Outrage Over The Gov't Brushing Mass Privacy Violations Under The Rug?

from the what-a-joke dept

I have to admit that I've been a bit in shock over Congress's decision to simply renew the Patriot Act, recently, without a single safeguard to protect against abuse. That's because just before all this happened, we wrote about how a report from the government found (not for the first time) that the FBI regularly abused its authority to get phone records it had no right to. This went well beyond earlier reports of abusing National Security Letters. In this case, the FBI didn't even bother with NSLs. Instead, sometimes it would just use a post-it note. On top of that, reports came out noting that just weeks before this report was released, the Obama administration issued a ruling with a blanket absolution for the FBI's activities -- basically saying that if the President said it was okay, it was fine.

This is not how our government is supposed to work.

Julian Sanchez has a fantastic article that should be a must read, detailing how Obama went from being a candidate who insisted there would be "no more National Security Letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime" because "that is not who we are, and it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists," to one who appears to have no problem regularly spying on citizens and covering it up. President Bush was really bad with warrantless wiretapping and retroactive immunity for telcos -- and most people figured Obama would at least be marginally better on that issue. But it's really scary how the entirety of the federal government doesn't seem to care much about these blatant privacy abuses -- and the public and the press has shrugged them off as well.

Given all the reports of abuses, and Obama's campaign statements, you would think that at least the government would put in place some kind of oversight and safeguards when the Patriot Act came up for renewal. No such luck. In fact, the administration appears to have worked with Republican Senators to make this possible. I don't think this is what people meant when they expected to see more "reaching across the aisle" from the President:
Indeed, by the time the House Judiciary Committee took up the question of reauthorization in early November, legislators of both parties were venting their frustration about the scant guidance they'd gotten from the administration.

Behind closed doors, however, the administration was anything but silent. Instead of openly opposing civil-liberties reforms that had been under consideration in the Senate, The New York Times reported in October, the Obama administration opted for a kind of political ventriloquist's routine. The Justice Department wrote a series of amendments diluting or stripping away the new protections, then laundered them through Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, who offered them up verbatim.

It's worth taking a closer look at one such reform proposal -- again, predating the latest and most damning OIG report -- to get a sense of the disconnect between the administration's public and private stances. Some legislators had wanted to require the FBI to develop "minimization procedures" for NSLs, as they do when full-blown wiretaps are employed, to ensure that information about innocents is not circulated indiscriminately and that irrelevant records are ultimately discarded. This would only bring NSLs in line with other Patriot provisions compelling production of business records, where minimization is already required, and in principle, the Justice Department is already on board with this plan: As Inspector General Glenn Fine noted in his testimony before the Senate in September, the department's NSL working group was already laboring to develop such procedures in response to the abuses documented in previous OIG reports -- but the working group had been dragging their heels for more than two years.

The task of blocking any legal requirement that the Justice Department pick up the pace fell to Rep. Dan Lungren, a Republican from California. At a House markup session in November, Lungren offered up an amendment that would strip away the minimization mandate and even argued, bizarrely, that the very concept of "minimization" was inapplicable in the NSL context. He was visibly confused when Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers, after making a point of praising Lungren's "scrupulous study" of the issue, pointed out that the Justice Department itself had publicly accepted the need for such procedures.

"This is the first I had heard that the Justice Department was either considering it or had not raised any objections to this," a visibly perplexed Lungren stammered, "because it was my understanding they felt this was an inappropriate transfer of a process that is used in the electronic surveillance arena." The talking points with which Lundgren had been supplied, it seems, had not been checked against the official assurances the department had been providing.
Sanchez's writeup goes into a lot more detail, but it's a depressing look at today's politics, media and the public as well. Politicians from both parties first belatedly tried to "legalize" blatantly illegal spying on Americans, and then, when they had an immediate opportunity to put in place the most basic safeguards because "that is not who we are," instead conspired with each other to renew the law and completely ignore the vast and blatant abuses of it. When you wonder why so few people trust politicians, this is why.

Equally troubling is the fact that the story of the widespread spying basically disappeared after a week. Sure, lots of people are focused on the buzz du jour (healthcare, healthcare, healthcare), but how is it that everyone is just willing to forget that our own government has been spying on thousands of people in ways that flagrantly violate what the law clearly states?

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  1. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 12 Mar 2010 @ 4:54am

    Re: Warning: Large amounts of Idealism ahead

    "And if those numbers were, ah, rather high?"

    If those numbers were high, then they would be trumpted from the mountaintops by the governmental propaganda machine to support their actions.

    As it is, even the very few examples they have brought forth have turned out to be bullshit.

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