January 31, 2008

No Such Animal

Solely because of Senator Chris Dodd's leadership, efforts by President Bush and the Senate to grant immunity to telecommunications companies that have illegally spied on Americans at the behest of the White House have been temporarily stymied. Likewise, a push to make warrantless surveillance without oversight the law of the land has also been blocked, but the fight is far from over.

Against this backdrop it is startling to realize that it is only a small minority in the Senate who are working to form surveillance laws within the framework of the Constitution. The majority, meanwhile, are single-mindedly working to violate their oaths of office, apparently more than willing to simply ignore constitutional guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure. If that seems an overstatement, consider that the Fourth Amendment reads:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
And that the Senate Oath of Office is as follows:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
Now try and reconcile those two things with the current Senate push to legalize spying on American citizens, legalize the search of communications without a warrant or probable cause, and eliminate judicial oversight. If you can manage it without your head exploding, either your comprehension of the English language is substandard, you're already working for the Bush Administration, or both.

While attempts to expand government power and intrusion have been couched in language contending that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and its institutions are insufficient to "protect America," the reality is far different. Under FISA provisions, the government has barely-fettered ability to establish and maintain surveillance over just about anyone - and has the power to obtain a warrant up to 72 hours after covert operations have begun - with only the secret FISA Court exercising any sort of oversight on the process. But while the current FISA system means that the citizenry must rely on the hidden judgments of a court that is practically invisible, if President Bush, the G.O.P. and a significant number of Senate Democrats have their way, even those scant protections will be eliminated.

The result would be, as Senator Russ Feingold explains in the video below, the most un-American of methodologies: "Trust me goverment" that places the lives and livelihoods of the citizenry completely in the hands of an elected despot against whom our only defense is a deep hope that he is benevolent. And make no mistake: a ruler unencumbered by checks and balances - whether one agrees with his policies or not - is a dictator.

Notably, recently-released research by the Mellman Group indicates that there is strong, widespread opposition spanning the political spectrum to warrantless wiretaps, blanket warrants, and immunity for telecommunications companies. According to the report:
Sixty-three percent (63%) of voters favor requiring the government to obtain a warrant from a court before wiretapping the conversations U.S. citizens have with people in other countries — a figure quite consistent with the 61% opposition we found in October. An outright majority of voters (55%) “strongly” supports requiring warrants. Only one-third (33%) support warrantless wiretaps of Americans’ international conversations, with fewer than 1-in-4 (24%) strongly supporting warrantless wiretaps.
On the question of telecom immunity, fully 57% oppose it, and even a recent guerilla poll of an audience hand-picked by AT&T for a show broadcast on its own online Tech Channel bears this out. The video that follows shows what happened when, on the heels of the company's declaration that it is studying the viability of filtering all content that crosses its network, Joel Johnson asked whether people were comfortable with their eMails, instant messages and other online communication being opened and "analyzed" without their consent or a warrant. Even absent apparent consideration of the fact that AT&T is being sued for illegal surveillance, the audience's reaction was swift and universally against unreasonable search and seizure. (Note that taping is halted as Johnson takes the conversation in an unapproved direction.)

With broad public opposition and a clear lack of constitutional support, it is easy to be utterly stupefied by the fact that the Senate is toying with both retroactive immunity for telecom companies and vastly expanded warrantless surveillance powers, but this turn of events should come as no surprise. Since President Bush took office, the Senate in particular has failed miserably in fulfilling its duties to oversee the actions of the Executive Branch and to curtail its excesses. Even the restoration of a Democratic majority in the 2006 elections has done little to slow the upper chamber's march to oblivion, and despite being in a position to oppose the serial criminality and overreaching of the White House, Majority Leader Harry Reid's "leadership" has instead been an execrable series of cave-ins, collapses and collaboration.

Only one thing has successfully blocked Senator Reid and his colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle from giving away America's fundamental freedoms: the people, who clearly believe that we have reached a tipping point where we can either slip further into lawlessness, corruption and a lack of accountability, or we can take a stand here and start to regain some ground. In a reaction emblematic of the frustration and anger permeating the United States today, citizens from across the nation have rained down a deluge of calls, eMails and letters on Capitol Hill opposing telecom immunity. Unquestionably, the apathy on which government so often depends to further empower itself has met a formidable obstacle in public activism.

Still, the machinations of the Administration and Senate leadership remain aimed at making it easy and convenient for the government to force itself into our lives. While there are lovers of authority who will say that this intrusiveness is necessary, it must be remembered that no one in a position of power can - or should - ever be fully trusted. Power corrupts at all levels, as this video by a Missouri motorist who was detained, harassed, and threatened reminds us (See here, here and here for the full, frightening story of what happened to 20 year-old Brett Darrow):

Mitt Romney, whose only consistent principle seems to be a devotion to pandering, claims that "Our most basic civil liberty is the right to be kept alive." The belief that "safety" trumps protection from tyranny, however, could not be more misguided. Not only does it ignore the fact that human beings in government are as subject to the failings that engender oppression as anyone else, but it ignores the sacrifices of the Founding Fathers and their own conviction that life without liberty is not worth living. It turns a blind eye to the fact that, throughout time, those who have yielded their welfare to the state - or been forced to do so - have suffered at least as much at the hands of their rulers as from external threats, and been denied any form of redress short of revolution.

Checks, balances and oversight are crucial to the continued existence and success of the American way of life. This nation was founded on the principles that the people are ultimately responsible for their own well-being and for the direction of the country, and that those whom we elect are our representatives, not our rulers. The successful implementation of these ideas is what separated the United States from every other nation that had come before it, and it is our abandonment of them in the face of fear-mongering, lies and misdirection that is transforming us into something far, far less admirable.

True freedom can be inconvenient at best and terrifying at worst, but history has shown conclusively that it trumps any alternative that demands a loss of independence. Periodically, we, as a people, will be tempted as many of us are now - sometimes strongly and sometimes less so - to take the easy road and abdicate our role in protecting and shaping our society. When that occurs, we must pause before we rashly surrender ourselves and future generations to the mercies of politicians, zealots, and the power-hungry, and simply remember one thing: there is no such animal as a "benevolent" dictator.

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