Litmus Test: Will Patriot Act Spying Continue?

With key provisions of the so-called Patriot Act set to expire on June 1, the fight to preserve the Constitution is heating up – and the battle lines tell us everything we need to know about the state of the country and the prospects for liberty.

On one side we have a grand alliance of authoritarians of the right and the left – the Know-Nothing wing of the Republican party and their neoconservative brain trust, the Obama administration, and present and former government officials with a financial interest in the Surveillance State. All these disparate elements are united around the alleged necessity of spying on innocent Americans without a warrant – a practice we once fought a revolution in order to end. Whatever their ideological differences, the Big Brother faction of the American polity can get behind the recent statement of Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who gave voice to the Washington mindset on this and every other issue under the sun:

“I think it’s clear to say that the program as designed is effective. Members [of Congress] are reluctant to change things that are effective just because of public opinion. And we’ve got a program that’s never had one breach of personal privacy.”

Public opinion? Who cares? Our Washington patricians don’t even care what the courts think: a recent appellate court decision declared the entire bulk domestic surveillance program illegal. Not that this counts in Burr-World, which is right next door to Bizarro World. In that alternate universe, a provision that enables the government to collect all the communications of each and every American citizen without an individual warrant isn’t a breach of personal privacy.

Writing in 1950, Garet Garrett, conservative Cassandra and onetime editorial writer for the Saturday Evening Post, couldn’t have imagined Sen. Marco Rubio when he described the propaganda of the national security state as “a complex of vaunting and fear,” but surely his phraseology prefigured Rubio’s comments on the Senate floor the other day:

“If there were another attack, ‘the first question out of everyone’s mouth is going to be, ‘why didn’t we know about it?’ And the answer better not be, ‘because this Congress failed to authorize a program that might have helped us know about it.’"

His Senate colleague and fellow presidential aspirant Lindsey Graham chimed in, averring:

“I’m open-minded to doing reforms. I just don’t want to diminish the capacity of the program to prevent another 9/11. I believe if the program were in operation before 9/11, we probably would have prevented 9/11."

Graham and Rubio are pretending not to know that law enforcement and counter-terrorism officials had plenty of clues pointing to the existence of the 9/11 plotters, including two messages intercepted by the National Security Agency the day before: “Tomorrow is zero hour” and “The match begins tomorrow,” both coming from known terrorist sources.

The problem isn’t that the government has too little information – it’s that they have too much, and don’t know what to do with the information they have. The problem, in short, is incompetence. I mean, how many different ways can you interpret a terrorist declaring “Tomorrow is zero hour?” But in fact these messages didn’t even get translated until months after they were received – long after the World Trade Center was turned into a smoking ruin.

The American people overwhelmingly oppose government snooping on their private communications: that’s why a phony “reform” bill was just passed by the House of Representatives, which would permit domestic surveillance to continue unhampered. Naturally they named it the “USA Freedom Act,” in an unintended tribute to George Orwell. Most of the votes against it were on the grounds that it served merely to mask the same abuses the public opposes.

Yet the lopsided vote in favor was an indication of just how much the politicians fear their aroused constituents, no matter how inadequate the fig leaf may be.

In the Senate, chaos reigns as the deadline for renewing Section 215 approaches, with no one quite clear as to how the vote will go – or even if a vote will be held at all. Senators Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) are threatening to filibuster any bill calling for an extension of the controversial provisions, and – given the unpopularity of government spying – not even the Lindsey Grahams of this world are all that eager to go on the record in support.

That’s because Americans oppose domestic surveillance of their private communications, with Tea Party Republicans agreeing with liberal Democrats that the Patriot Act should be repealed in toto. Not that this will cause Rubio to recalibrate his stance: he’s a committed authoritarian. That’s why he’s garnered the endorsement of the number one profiteer of the Surveillance State, Oracle Corporation’s Larry Ellison, who, after 9/11, moved quickly to cash in on the terrorist scare and made billions. Ellison demanded the government institute a national ID card – which he called a “smart card” – to “ensure that all the information in myriad government databases was integrated into a single national file.” Privacy? There’s no such thing, he told San Francisco’s KPIX News:

“Well, this privacy you’re concerned about is largely an illusion. All you have to give up is your illusions, not any of your privacy. Right now, you can go onto the Internet and get a credit report about your neighbor and find out where your neighbor works, how much they earn and if they had a late mortgage payment and tons of other information."

And Rubio’s big money backer isn’t just contemptuous of the very concept of privacy, he also hates the Founders of our country. Writing in the New York Times, Ellison opined:

“Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson warned us that our liberties were at risk unless we exercised ‘eternal vigilance, [but] Jefferson lived in an age of aristocrats and monarchs”!

We, too, live in an age of aristocrats – like the billionaire Ellison, who lives in a $200 million palace bigger than Versailles – and uncrowned monarchs with more firepower (and police powers) behind them than Louis XIV ever dreamed of.

Imagine if the redcoats had access to the kind of technology peddled by Ellison and his pet candidate, Rubio: George Washington and Sam Adams would’ve wound up in the British Crown’s version of Guantanamo. Oh, but that was then, and this is now – we’re ruled by benevolent despots, who know what’s best. So wear your slave bracelet: it’s for your own good!

In a better, earlier day, people like Ellison, Rubio, Graham, and the rest of the usual suspects would’ve been run out of a town on a rail: today, they rule the roost.

But perhaps not for long.

While the Bourbons of Washington ignore the rumblings of rebellion, and, like Sen. Burr, advise them to eat cake, the contours of the second American revolution are taking shape. Massive opposition to government surveillance, on both sides of the political spectrum, is only one aspect of this trend: add to that growing anger over the militarization (and disgraceful brutality) of the police, widespread disdain for the drug laws, and a general feeling on the part of the public that their own government, rather than any external threat, is the main danger to their liberty, and what you have is a recipe for a radical upheaval.

Beneath the placid exterior of politics-as-usual, and the cocktail chatter of the Washington know-it-alls, lies a volcanic anger that only awaits a catalyzing incident before it erupts. With no real electoral outlet – thanks to the two-party monopoly – this seething resentment is generally submerged, but when it comes to the surface, it is searing, and often violent. This is the price our rulers pay for keeping a lid on their subjects’ rebellious – and quintessentially American – instincts.

In America, these days, there are only two real parties: it’s the constitutionalists versus the authoritarians, the Jeffersonians versus the Ellisonians. They cannot coexist, or engage in any compromise, for the simple reason that a country is either free, or unfree. One precludes the other. And pretty soon we will be forced to choose, in circumstances no one can foresee.

The present fight over the Patriot Act is a litmus test, telling us who is on which side of the barricades, and prefiguring the battle to come. Take note – and prepare….

In the meantime, we here at Antiwar.com are chronicling the run up to that final battle – but we can’t continue to do it without your financial support. You’ll notice that on the front page we’ve initiated the matching funds phase of our fundraising campaign: thanks to the generosity of some of our donors, who have pledged a total of $33,000, you can double the impact of your donation. But we only get that funding insofar as we can match it with smaller individual contributions.

This country is at a crossroads: our foreign policy of perpetual war has led to an outrageous assault on our civil liberties. Isn’t that always the case in wartime? As we at Antiwar.com have long warned, we can’t keep our constitutional republic and maintain a global Empire at the same time. It’s one or the other.

The fight for peace and the battle to preserve the Bill of Rights is the same struggle – and we’re in the frontlines. But we can’t win without your help. The War Party and its authoritarian allies have access to almost limitless resources: we, on the other hand, are a relatively small operation, with very limited funding. But we don’t need millions of dollars in order to make the case for peace and freedom – we just need a basic minimum to bring our winning message to the American people. And that’s all we’re asking for.

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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.

Read more by Justin Raimondo

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].