Sunsets Can Be Beautiful (Patriot Act)
For the first time in the memory of anyone who has just awoken from a 20 year coma in the past few months, the US Senate is coming back from a grueling week-long paid vacation early to try to meet a legislative deadline it has known about for years. Some key provisions of the Patriot Act expire at midnight if they are not extended or amended in such a way as to pass before that time.
The sections involved include key provisions dealing with the controversial mass accumulation of data concerning basically all telephone calls made in the US. This mass surveillance, made public famously by Edward Snowden, has become an extremely controversial issue for many, both within and outside of government, as a possible violation of our civil liberties and Constitutional rights under the 4th Amendment, which deals with unreasonable searches and seizures.
When the Patriot Act was passed shortly following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, few objections or votes in opposition were made in Congress. Senator Russ Feingold was an exception, but ended up losing his seat in the 2010 midterm elections. The last time these provision were scheduled to expire, there was some lively debate and more members of Congress favored allowing them to sunset, but the law was extended intact until now. Exposing the nature of and extent of the programs which sprang up (most notably in the NSA) resulted in increased criticism of the law from civil libertarians from both parties, due largely to a public outcry against what is seen by many to be a gross overreach by the intelligence agencies into more areas of our everyday existence than had ever before been technically possible, let alone legally permissible.
A bipartisan attempt was made and passed by the House of Representatives to make the private companies providing services to gather and store the data, which would then be made accessible to the pertinent government agencies only upon obtaining a specific search warrant from a specially named FISA court. This same bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, did not sail through the Senate, as many in the Administration and Congress had hoped. Neither did attempts to extend the deadline by even as much as one day. The most notable obstacle in the Senate has been 2016 GOP Presidential candidate Rand Paul. Paul has been the most outspoken of the critics to these provisions of the law and proposed changes to it, but far from alone in doing so. If it was just him in opposition, the Senate could have easily passed the required legislation and gone merrily on its Memorial Day vacation.
Dire consequences are being predicted by leadership of the affected intelligence and law enforcement entities, up to and including the new Attorney General and the President himself, should Congress not act to allow these programs to continue. Fear mongering, in much the same vein as that experienced following the 9/11 attacks and the push to invade Iraq back in 2003, remains a staple part of the talking points brought up by those favoring this surveillance, including most of the discussions of it in the mainstream media. Wariness towards public pronouncements of existing dangers and what is actually required to prevent them from manifesting themselves in the near future is warranted, in my view. Recent lies told to justify wars, torture, indefinite detention without charge of suspected terrorists, and other war crimes allegations place an understandably higher burden of proof on our leaders – elected and appointed.
Placing ownership and procurement of the data in the hands of the private companies which made its creation possible in the first place is a shell game. Not only are people increasingly suspicious of the compilation of such data by government – the companies themselves have been seen as guilty of misusing such data for their own purposes. Just because technology has made the gathering of such electronic information easier – or in some cases, even possible for the first time in our history – does not mean that innocent people have nothing to fear by its gathering and storage. Even with a FISA court that wasn’t seen as a basic rubber stamp of approval for requested warrants, the massive amount of secrecy involved in the process rightly makes people feel uneasy.
I personally held the opinion, even before Edward Snowden’s revelations, that the Patriot Act , AUMF and NDAA spawned in response to the very real terrorist threats that resulted in 9/11 went too far. Civil liberties and Constitutional rights have been eroded to a far greater extent than the added security for the American people requires. Budgets for intelligence, defense and other aspects under the rubric of “Homeland Security” have lost all transparency and pretense of justification – other than that those receiving the added funds say they need them to keep us safe.
The reason the sunset provisions were included in the original legislation and subsequent renewals was to provide a safety valve to prevent irrevocable loss of individual rights and freedoms in the unachievable quest for an unattainable degree of personal safety for all. The time has come for these provisions to be allowed to lapse in order that we maintain or regain liberties which separate us from nations throughout history which we have referred to as totalitarian dictatorships which have little regard to individual civil and human rights. We need not become so like our enemies that we become indistinguishable from them in practice in order to defeat them. Terrorizing our people from within to protect them from external threats is not much of a win.
While I disagree with Senator Paul on many other issues and think he would not make a good President, he’s right on this issue (as was Russ Feingold). Kicking the can down the road for a few more days, months or years is not a good solution. That would only allow the programs to become even more entrenched and abuses of authority allowed to flourish unabated. Rein in this mass surveillance while we can. Regardless of the results of these latest Congressional theatrics, we need to dismantle Big Brother before he gets even bigger and even more difficult to defeat.
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