In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, the rush was on to rein in – or appear to rein in – the Surveillance State. The only really authentic effort was led by Rep. Justin Amash, the libertarian Braveheart, whose bill to completely defund the unconstitutional activities of the National Security Agency was narrowly defeated by a coalition of Clintonian Democrats and neoconservative Republicans.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
Two camps coalesced around two completely different concepts of "reform": Sen. Diane Feinstein introduced the "FISA Improvement Act," essentially an extension of the NSA’s powers. Rep. Jim Sensenbrunner (R-Wisconsin), author of the infamous "Patriot" Act, called it "a joke," and the bill was universally mocked.
On the other side of the barricades, the proponents of the original USA Freedom Act basically dismantled the promiscuous collection of Americans’ phone records and other communications by the NSA. While Feinstein’s bill languished with few co-sponsors and little support, the Freedom Act made it to the Judiciary Committee – where it was gutted of most of its content. As I wrote at the time:
"The ‘compromise’ bill deploys the time-honored bureaucratic weapon of linguistic obfuscation to redefine language and use it in ways no ordinary person would recognize. In translating the intent of legislators into lingo describing the technical architecture of our emerging police state, terms like ‘selector’ can be interpreted broadly enough to put not even a dent in the NSA’s armor.
"The final legislative product will be an amalgamation of the language contained in both the original Sensenbrenner bill and the Feinstein extension of the NSA’s powers, leading to the creation of a new hybrid system in which the power of the State to track, surveil, and investigate Americans on suspicion of ‘terrorism’ will be extended in more ways than it is (theoretically) restricted."
This is precisely what has occurred with the final bill. Rather than fundamentally changing the way the NSA scoops up data, the bill merely outsources collection to immunized telecoms, compelling them to do the NSA’s dirty work.
The "Freedom Act" is quite free with its Orwellian redefinition of common words to mean the exact opposite of what they have traditionally meant: for example, the bill defines a "selector" in such a way as to permit NSA to report a dragnet order collecting everyone’s VISA bill as a single order targeting specific alleged terrorist outfits – when, in the real world, it would legalize surveillance of over 300 million US citizens. No wonder Deputy NSA Director Richard Ledgett says that under the terms of the bill "the actual universe of potential calls that could be queried against is [potentially] dramatically larger."
Under the present arrangement, government spies must operate within certain parameters that theoretically minimize "accidental" collections of Americans’ data. The bill actually weakens these existing minimization procedures: instead of encoding them in law it hands the job of devising "privacy procedures" to the Attorney General, rather than the FISA court. What this means is that, under the proposed legislation, if the court found the NSA or other government agency spying on an individual (and his or her network of friends and acquaintances) because they engaged in constitutionally protected speech, the court would no longer have the authority to demand the destruction of those records. This is a giant step backward.
The so-called "transparency" provisions in the bill contain numerous loopholes, including exemptions for back door searches by the FBI, and the possibility that the DNI may issue a certification claiming there are operational reasons why he or she can’t report the number of Americans whose information has been collected. Rather than reveal anything meaningful, the provisions in the bill covering statistics to be submitted by the government will actually hide how many individuals are having their non-communications records – purchases, financial records, etc. – collected and stored. Under the procedures set up by this bill, we’ll never know how many Americans the FBI is spying on by collecting and storing their emails, call records, Internet searches, etc., because the reporting procedures are designed to conceal.
The misnamed "USA Freedom Act" holds out the promise of "reform," but its main purpose is to mislead. It doesn’t minimize the intrusive surveillance techniques currently used by the NSA and other government agencies: instead it codifies them, in some instances, and in other instances masks ongoing abuses.
Some civil liberties groups, like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argue that the present bill is "a first step," and is better than nothing. This is nonsense: this bill is worse than nothing. With the passage of the USA Freedom Act the momentum for real reform will be blunted and allowed to dissipate. Further efforts to roll back the awful power of the NSA will be met with cries of "Didn’t we already do this?" If this bill passes, the Washington insiders will win out, and the Surveillance State will remain intact – arguably even more powerful than before.
Some may say: But aren’t you taking an all-or-nothing attitude? The answer is: not at all. A real reform means a partial reining in of the NSA, with no new extensions of its reach. This bill includes a full-scale codification of abuses coupled with ambiguous and easily reinterpreted "reforms" that don’t mean what they appear to mean.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), one of the original supporters of the bill before it was gutted, has said through an aide that Sen. Leahy’s reforms "don’t go far enough. There are significant problems with the bill, the most notable being an extension of the Patriot Act through December 2017."
This is the kind of radical-but-reasonable stance that can lead to real reform – not the phony variety being pushed by Sen. Leahy, the ACLU, and the rest of the limp-wristed beaten-down liberals who have grown so accustomed to the Warfare State that they can’t imagine anything else. Their timidity won’t restore our old Republic – only the principled stance taken by Sen. Paul and those calling for the outright repeal of the odious "Patriot" Act have a shot at doing that.
A special note:
It’s 4:38 Pacific Standard Time, and I’m sitting at my desk, trying to gather my thoughts: how do I impress upon Antiwar.com’s supporters the depth and breadth of the crisis we face?
After all, we’ve lived through thirteen years of constant warfare: an entire generation has grown up knowing nothing but war. This is the New Normal – right? It’s what we’ve come to expect – and accept.
Except I’m not accepting it – and, I hope and trust, neither are you.
Because the moment we do accept it, all is lost. The minute we acclimatize ourselves to the atmosphere of hysterical fear drummed up by the "mainstream" media, we become part of the problem.
The media is a very big part of the problem: they are bought and paid for – there’s just no other way to put it. The War Party owns them just as surely as the bank owns the mortgage on your house: they jump when the War Party says "Jump!" The only question they have is "How high?"
This morning, the latest beheading of an American aid worker by ISIS is being trumpeted as yet another reason why we must re-invade Iraq. Emotion – chiefly fear – is the War Party’s biggest weapon and they are using it to the max. Will someone stand up and say our most important ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, has beheaded dozens in the past few months? Will anybody rise to point out that a bunch of savages in the distant desert of the Levant pose no real threat to Americans – unless they decide to go there?
We will, and we have – but we can’t continue to speak truth to hysteria without your help.
Unlike the War Party, we don’t have fat-assed oligarchs like Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban passing us bundles of cash. We don’t have the support of the Washington insiders and Georgetown cocktail partygoers who urge us to "be realistic" and accept the status quo – that is, the Empire, which, they say, is a permanent fixture of American life.
Our answer to them is "Never!" – because the Empire is a criminal enterprise. And we won’t rest until it’s exposed, dismantled, and buried for good. We won’t stop until our old Republic is restored. And we won’t remain silent in the face of the liars in the media – the camarilla of fear – who are accessories to mass murder.
That’s why we need your help – because we can’t do it alone.
Since 1998, we’ve been exposing the War Party’s schemes, debunking their lies, and taking plenty of heat for it. We don’t mind the heat, but we do need some refreshment now and then. Our tiny band of antiwar fighters has been on the barricades for years now, without even a brief respite. Every so often we start running out of fuel, and it’s gotten to the point that we need a jump-start – and we need it now.
Your tax-deductible donation to Antiwar.com goes a very long way in any event: that’s because we run a very tight ship. With our matching funds waiting in the wings (cash and Bitcoin), your generous contribution will go twice as far. But we won’t get those funds without your donation – however small. Because every little bit helps.
So please – if you’ve been holding off for any reason, now is the time to make that donation. Help ensure that the voice of peace – and reason – is never silenced. Donate today – because tomorrow may be too late.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.