Monday, December 19, 2005

On a government to watch our backs... with spy satellites and a hidden camera in your medicine cabinet

Okay, so in a controversial move, the White House attempted Thursday to draw attention away from the Valerie Plame scandal with the announcement that the NSA has been wiretapping American citizens without court approval since 2002. This came on the heels of a recent announcement that the Pentagon has been maintaining a watch list of anti-war protest groups, leading many Americans to question, "What exactly the hell is going on here?"

The president defended his actions in a radio address Saturday, saying, "'Torture is wrong, spying on Americans is wrong.' Blah, blah, blah. The media undermine the security of this country ever time they publicize something illegal I've done."

Okay, he didn't actually say that. The president maintains that his authority to authorize such searches comes from the 2001 Congressional resolution letting him go after al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. While the NSA has long had the authority to monitor phone calls and e-mails on foreign soil, they can't do so within the US without receiving a court order, and the FBI usually handles such surveillance anyway.

Dick Cheney said in a "Nightline" interview to be broadcast tonight that Congress has been briefed "over a dozen times," and that the program is "consistent with the statutes and with the law," to the best of their abilities. Congressional leaders from both parties have expressed concern about the program, including Democrats Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and Republicans Lindsey Graham and Arlen Specter.

I'm sorry, if the president can't get the approval of Arlen Specter, he needs to give serious question to his surveillance program.

Administration officials have said that the president didn't go to the Congress for approval because he felt that he could authorize the searches under the 2001 "Authorization to use Military Force," the Congressional resolution allowing him to go after al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. They have also said that he totally did go to Congress, and no one had a problem with it. They have also said that he totally didn't go to Congress, concerned that a law allowing the surveillance would never pass because of civil liberties concerns.

Administration officials declined to specify which excuse they plan to use when the shit ultimately hits the fan.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales does acknowledge that the warrantless wiretapping is illegal under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but says that the program derives its authority from the aforementioned 2001 resolution and from the "inherent powers" of the president.

Senator Russ Feingold said on the Today Show that "nobody, nobody, thought when we passed a resolution to invade Afghanistan and to fight the war on terror, including myself who voted for it, thought that this was an authorization to allow a wiretapping against the law of the United States." If he'd bothered to go to Congress, the president might have learned this, but it's always better to ask forgiveness than permission, right?

Obviously, the biggest concern here is that our Fourth Amendment rights have been violated without any apparent concern for, well, the fourth amendment. The general attitude is that the NSA will only spy on Americans if they meet some arbitrary standard for naughtiness that the government refuses to disclose, and the old Patriot Act defense that "if you're not doing anything wrong, you shouldn't care if they're spying on you" has come out once or twice among the punditry. No one has yet responded to the question of whether they'd submit to random body cavity searches, if they know they have nothing hidden in their rectums.

Outside of the question of civil liberties themselves, though, I am deeply worried that our president believes that he has "inherent powers" allowing him to suspend our consitutional rights at will - and that he has lawyers telling him that he can. I have problems with the president being unwilling to consult Congress because he's afraid they'll say no. I have problems with the president doing something so obviously wrong, and then going on TV and not even having the decency to defend himself, but rather to condemn the media for reporting it.

The government has walked a fine line since September 11. It's not unexpected that national security should become more of an issue after an attack like that, and when people are afraid, they're more likely to be a bit more free with their personal liberties in exchange for the promise of security. When a real threat exists, it's the responsibility of the government to do everything they can within the bounds of the law to address it. But how many rights must we be expected to give away in the interest of national security? We could all spend our lives tucked away in individual Ziploc baggies with constant closed-circuit monitoring and be safe from the threat of terrorism, but do we want to live like that?

There's one more concern that I haven't seen raised yet, and it's got Potential National Security Crisis written all over it. This might be merely the result of my near-obsessive "Law & Order" and "NCIS" habit, but I have to ask: what can be done with evidence obtained illegally? Say the NSA's secret program turns up evidence that an American citizen is plotting with al Qaeda to commit terrorist acts within the US. He's arrested, which is a good thing, and brought to trial, which is another good thing. Then the judge is forced to throw out the evidence obtained by the wiretap, because we're all obliged to follow the law even if the president isn't, and the law says that you have to have a warrant to wiretap. The government is forced to let a terrorist go free because they couldn't be bothered to get a warrant before tapping his phone. How have we been made safer when this guy is back out on the street, fat and happy on the knowledge that he managed to pull one over on the federal government?

I realize that there are still people out there who are deathly afraid of terrorism. September 11 was a scary reminder that we're never completely safe. But Hurricane Katrina should have been a scary reminder that even if we're safe from terrorists, we're still vulnerable to acts of God, and if that wasn't enough, every reported bathtub slippage or choking incident or accidental poisoning should remind us that we're not even safe locked away in our homes. I'll say it again for the slow learners: No matter what, you will never, ever, ever be completely safe. We each have to decide how much of our freedom we're willing to give up in exchange for security. Our president does not have the "inherent power" to make that decision for us.

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