We are now beginning to see the staggering extent to which the Patriot Act has undermined our Constitution and privacy, thanks to the actions of a man who is being labeled a traitor by politicians and a hero, if a self-righteous one, by more sensible people. The broad and ambiguous powers granted the FBI are enough of a cause for concern, and now we learn the NSA has been conducting secret surveillance of apparently everyone on the planet who has access to a telephone, computer or credit card. That would include Americans, whom the NSA is of course not empowered to spy on, but we cannot afford to be obsessive about details when it comes to national security. Besides, the FBI, which is in fact commissioned to pry into our lives, is too busy with its own vastly expanded powers.
Is this process of collecting and analyzing astronomical amounts of data at all effective in combating terrorism? Perhaps, but an independent estimation is impossible when virtually everything – including the very existence of the program – is classified, and the public knows only what the government deigns to release. “Trust us, your elected officials,” says the President. Trust Congress, which seems to be generally in the dark itself and in any case is focused on politics? Trust the military, which has a long and rich history of lying to the people? Trust the spooks, whose whole existence is deception? Keep in mind that the Man, Director of Intelligence James Clapper, when asked before a Congressional committee if data on Americans was being collected, said no, deliberately lying to the body that is supposed to be providing oversight.
Perhaps the saddest thing in all this is that fully half the American population accepts this massive invasion of the Fourth Amendment. This is hardly a surprise. Judging from the apparent abandon and relish with which people, especially younger people, place personal and revealing information and photos on social media platforms, it would appear that many Americans have little interest in the Fourth Amendment. Of course, most Americans would not be able to identify the Fourth Amendment, but most do have a sense that the Constitution guarantees privacy. Besides, what is a little snooping if it prevents terror attacks? Further, many are taken by the assurance – second only to national security as a reason for undermining civil liberties – that you have nothing to worry about if you are doing nothing wrong. Well, at least until the government has some reason to find wrongdoing.
That the odds of being injured by a terrorist are infinitesimal compared to being shot or by a gun or hit by a drunk driver is seemingly unimportant. For some obscure reason killing a couple of people with a bomb and a cause is a threat to national security, while gunning down a dozen people in the streets of Chicago is just crime. And the mere mention of national security means the Constitution is likely to be assaulted. I am constantly amazed that the same people who constantly remind us that men died to preserve the freedoms we exercise, especially when we criticize the government and military, are among the first to accept limitations on those freedoms whenever the cry of national security is raised.
But even more annoying than the surveillance programs and the sanctimonious defense of the same is the stupefying and frequently ludicrous application of secrecy. Is there nothing done by our government that is not classified? Of course, left to itself the government, in all its manifestations, would classify everything; it is the easiest way to cover mistakes, avoid blame and embarrassment and do illegal things. The spooks obviously feel better when the public knows nothing, but generals and politicians can also operate more freely and feel superior and important when they know stuff the public is unaware of.
The constant refrain is that revealing pretty much anything about our security apparatus damages national security, though exactly how is inevitably left vague. We are told, for example, that the outing of NSA’s PRISM program has caused “serious and irreversible damage to this nation.” What, now all of a sudden the terrorists realize it is dangerous to use cell phones and credit cards? Those plotting acts against America could hardly be that stupid; the stupid guys get to blow themselves up in Kabul. Except among the stupid in the US, of whom there seem to be many (one even sits on the Intelligence Committee – Michele Bachmann), such outlandish claims only further undermine the already almost non-existent credibility of the government on these issues. Incidentally, that same person, General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, also claimed the revelation undermined our relations to our allies, a rare burst of truth from such a source.
Why is the very budget of the NSA secret? What can our enemies conclude from knowing exactly how much money is poured into the agency, when simply knowing that is a very large amount is enough to make a terrorist wary? The only sensible reason is to hide the coast and extent of the NSA’s activities from the American public, which is exactly what is happening. And for political reasons the government is now revealing little bits of information regarding the NSA’s programs. Well, if this stuff can be declassified now without hurting our security, why was it classified in the first place?
This can get very silly. James Clapper lied to Congress because he would have violated the laws binding him to secrecy had he replied truthfully. Rep. Peter King, a poster child for ignorance, further explained that the Committee had placed the Director in an “untenable” position by asking him the question at all, even though Clapper was advised ahead of the hearing that he would be asked this. Sen. Ron Wyden, who asked the question, later stated that he knew Clapper was lying but could not say so without violating his own security clearance agreements. Clapper later explained that faced with the problem he answered “no” as the “most truthful, or least untruthful” reply. He might just as well used the expression “truthiness.” He lied, plain and simple, and his explanation only makes him look either disingenuous or stupid – or perhaps both.
But the whole business is in fact very serious for us, the people. The Patriot Act is of course a public document, but apparently exactly how the government interprets its clauses is different from what one might suppose from reading the law. Naturally, that interpretation is secret, presumably because any terrorist can read the law and thus undermine its effectiveness by understanding its provisions. Or because the government is abusing even the broad unconstitutional powers granted by the Act.
And the most nefarious and ultimately destructive part of this compilation of police state laws is the provision for the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is to provide the “oversight” promised by the politicians. Of course, the court is secret. It is staffed by judges appointed by the Chief Justice for seven year terms, and this should comfort us inasmuch as the Supreme Court is the defender of the Constitution, which, however, many scholars believe has already been violated by the Patriot Act itself. There is no defense; the Justice Department makes its case for a warrant, and the judge decides, apparently positively in the vast majority of instances. The arguments, the targets, the outcome and the information acquired are all secret.
No one is actually being tried before this court, although the decision to grant a warrant to the FBI might be considered the first step in a judicial process that could culminate in an individual’s arrest or death. Nevertheless, it is a secret court, an institution traditionally associated with oppressive governments. Like blowing up American citizens with a Hellfire missile (after a secret judgment in the White House), this court rests on a very slippery slope and establishes an incredibly dangerous precedent. The next step is a secret court to try American citizens because the evidence used by the prosecution must be kept secret in the interests of national security, a development already emerging is the trials of foreign nationals and resident aliens. The Patriot Act is transforming the Federal Bureau of Investigation into an actual Geheime Staatspolizei.
I see little hope. The technology of spying has become so sophisticated, especially in connection with the information and communications structures, that resistance seems futile. Not only has it become easier for the security services to spy and keep their operations secret, but the new electronic technologies are just too damn useful to the government, particularly regarding domestic concerns, and a generally ignorant Congress will continue to legalize activity ultimately destructive to a democratic society. The Constitution is of course protected by the Supreme Court, but some of their recent decisions do not fill me with hope. Besides, I am guessing that most of this stuff is also kept secret from the Justices.
One final thing: is Michele Bachmann actually entrusted with secrets?