It’s time. It’s time for President Obama to live up to his own words. It’s time for Congress to do its job. It’s time to contract the ever-expanding national security state. And it’s time to roll back the Patriot Act.
In Washington, elected officials are circling the wagons. The Obama administration claims that its Internet and telephone surveillance programs are legal; the ones we know about, indeed, are. Republicans who’ve never met a national security program they didn’t love and key Democrats have closed ranks, arguing that the program has had many selected successes, many of them secret.
But just because something is legal and can be done does that mean that it should remain so and continue to be done? No. Laws are made and unmade all the time. And the argument that vast, dragnet-style surveillance has stopped terrorists at the lamentable expense of privacy is exactly the same argument that the Bush administration made about torture: better to sacrifice our principles and a few people in the hope of saving many.
That was an argument that still isn’t proven true, years after the fact. As disappointing is to see major liberal figures decide just to circle around their president, saying, “Well, he’s our guy. We trust him.” Even if he’s your guy now he won’t be your guy in 2017 and last I checked we were a nation of laws, not men. Bill Maher and Lawrence O’Donnell will likely regret their choice to become advocates as opposed to unflinching commentators.
Arguments aside, here is a fact: The Patriot Act, under which all of this surveillance is being justified, is set to expire in 2015. Congress extended it at the last minute and President Obama signed the extension into law in May 2011. After campaigning against the excesses of the previous administration, the president found it urgent enough to sign the extension using the White House auto pen just before midnight though he was in Paris himself.
The law vastly expanded surveillance in this country and abroad and provided police powers to a wide array of agencies on a wide array of fronts, from locking up undocumented immigrants to empowering the Federal Reserve Board of Governors to act as police agents in financial transactions. And, of course, it led to the expansion of widespread surveillance of phone records and Internet traffic, messages and content — to which nearly all of us blithely contribute.
As Colorado Sen. Mark Udall has said, Congress should now begin the process of reviewing the Patriot Act, well prior to its expiration. And it should do so in the most public manner possible. The intelligence community should not hide behind the old “sources and methods” apron but instead provide numbers, case studies and quantifiable results, even if they are reasonably sanitized. Every legal interpretation of the act should be open to scrutiny — not hidden by classification.
Besides, how accurate are these databases and algorithms, really? Consider two different groups being fairly, regularly and often mistakenly detained.
First there are pilots. In May, Gabriel Silverstein was detained not once but twice by the Department of Homeland Security as he flew his plane across the Midwest — with nary a reason given but a fruitless inspection by a drug dog thrown in to boot. All that he learned was the flight profile he willingly filed fit a profile in a database known as AMOSS, which tracks and analyzes 24,000 flights a day using both FAA and military radar. Other pilots have been similarly detained in South Carolina and Texas, all according to the radical Airline Owners and Pilots Association.
Second there are air travelers. Last year, one of the most famous actors in the world was detained: Indian cinema star Shah Rukh Khan was mistakenly held for two hours after landing aboard a private jet in White Plains, N.Y., en route to an event at Yale University where he was to receive an honorary fellowship. But not to be outdone, agents at Boston’s Logan Airport mistakenly detained an Indian state official, carrying a diplomatic passport on his way to Harvard. A British traveler was turned away in Los Angeles for a Twitter message that while bizarre also indicated that he was to unearth the remains of Marilyn Monroe.
There is more at work here, though, than the mere accuracy of these programs. Big things always are open to big abuse. In 2008, ABC News reported that NSA was listening in on the private telephone conversations of none other than American soldiers in the Middle East. These intelligence efforts are so vast and intrusive it is unlikely that even the handful of informed members of Congress really understand them. The Canadian national and provincial governments have tried to stop U.S. agencies from seizing records in that country. And increasingly, Americans living abroad who have unpaid tax bills have their names entered into the TECS database by the IRS and are detained upon arrival by Homeland Security, according to yet another radical group — the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
Now, it’s time for the intelligence community to make its case — in public. And it’s time to roll back the Patriot Act, repeal it — or just let it expire.
Richard Parker writes for the New York Times, The New Republic, the Columbia Journalism Review and McClatchy-Tribune.