Sure enough, when NDAA passed in December, the promised veto shrank into a meek statement by Obama that he would sign the bill "despite having serious reservations with certain provisions." He even declared that "my administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens." Yet, there it is, engraved in law and available to any president who chooses to use it.
Tellingly, Obama quietly signed the bill on December 31, when the media and the people were on holiday and busy partying.
Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide. This is the FBI's official manual governing the work of its 14,000 agents, giving them the do's and don'ts of proper investigative techniques. After 9/11, successive Bush attorneys general "updated" the rules of behavior to loosen and sever many of those pesky constitutional reins on agency snooping, freeing agents to spy on law-abiding Americans and domestic organizations because of their political activity, ethnicity, or religion -- with no evidence needed to show that the targets are doing anything wrong.
Then the Democrats displaced the Bushites, and the Obama team issued its own revised edition of the guide last summer. It's a doozy. Valerie Caproni, the FBI's chief lawyer, pooh-poohed the revision as "more like fine-tuning than major changes," but take a peek at the tweaks. Those 14,000 agents gained new powers to conduct an "assessment" of the connections and actions of any US citizen or group even if they are not suspected of criminal activity or terrorist ties. Agents were newly authorized to burrow into people's trash, secretly search their databases, and even compel them to take lie detector tests -- all without requiring the agency to make a record of the intrusive probe. Also, specially trained "surveillance squads" can now secretly tail these assessment targets any time, with no warrant required.
Bear in mind that FBI assessments are not something the agency does infrequently -- agents open thousands of these clandestine, "proactive" probes each month, and now Obama allows the intrusions to go deeper into the private lives of innocent Americans than even Bush got away with.
The rationale, according to Obamacans, is that, while these people might not be doing anything wrong, they might know someone who is! As lawyer Caproni explained, agents merely want to sift through trash cans and databases of the innocent in hopes of surfacing some bit of information that would pressure the innocent ones to help the government go after an actual suspect. Ah, yes, tighten the screws -- the old squeeze play is newly legit in our land of the free! Who's advising Obama on this stuff -- George Orwell?
Patriot Act: The Thing that won't die. This hydra-headed monster arose from the swamp of fear following the 2001 crash-bombing of our people, having been spawned by the Machiavellian opportunism of Cheney, Ashcroft, and other far-right authoritarian zealots. They foisted it on America in the name of "protecting" us from foreign fiends, but we quickly learned that the act itself was the fiend, endowed by its creators with multiple powers to rampage over innocent people's rights. Its Big Brother abuses throughout the Bush years made the Patriot Act a hot political issue in the 2008 presidential contest, and Obama promised again and again that he could, and would, tame the beast.
Sir Barack the Gallant's shining moment came last May, when congressional Democrats and Republicans were grappling over reforms to several major provisions of the oppressive law:
- Section 215,
a sweeping and widely despised power, lets the FBI grab "any tangible
thing" it considers "relevant" to a terrorism investigation -- your
library records, phone calls, emails, credit card data, websites
visited, etc. Agents can seize your information even if they don't
suspect you of being guilty of anything, and they can (and routinely do)
search your records without ever telling you they've snuck into your
- Section 206,
known as the "roving John Doe wiretap," simply erases the Fourth
Amendment's requirement that the government state specifically who or
what place is to be searched and what it's looking for before it can get
a warrant. The Patriot Act says that agents in vaguely defined
terrorism investigations can get a warrant to wiretap an unnamed John
Doe just because they want one.
- Section 505 hands secret and frighteningly invasive power to FBI agents through "national security letters." These totalitarian documents compel phone, internet, financial, and other corporations to hand over all data on the private communications and transactions of their customers. This is the surveillance-vacuum-cleaner-from-hell, sucking in ridiculous volumes of info on Americans who are not even suspected of doing anything unlawful. The FBI issues tens of thousands of the letters each year in far-flung fishing expeditions that yield practically nothing of value to the agency, much less to America's security. NSLs are the stuff of the old KGB, coming complete with gag orders that prohibit corporate recipients from ever revealing that they got such a letter, while also precluding any court from questioning whether the gag is necessary to protect national security.
The NSL outrages were the subject of a 2009 reform effort when Democrats had a congressional majority. While Obama's official position was that he supported the reforms proposed by his fellow Democrats, his justice department furtively wrote the amendments that stripped away those reforms, then worked behind the scenes to get Republican lawmakers to sponsor and pass the amendments.
Last May, with several of the Patriot Act's liberty-busting provisions set to expire, the White House and Congress had an opportune moment to restore our Bill of Rights' supremacy over the sprawling surveillance superstructure imposed on us by that awful piece of legislation. The tea party Republicans controlling the House, however, mocked their professed devotion to liberty by locking arms against reform. The Obamacans, having no stomach for a fight, meekly retreated. On May 26, with little media attention and no debate, the Repubs and Dems joined in a rare bipartisan vote -- to punt the Bill of Rights. They extended the Patriot Act -- including sections 215, 206, and 505 -- for four more years.Technology marches on!
Every new high-tech advance comes with a flurry of hype about how this latest device or system will "free" humankind from the limits of the old ways.
From the invention of the spyglass forward, nearly every new techno-gizmo has been adopted or adapted by the hundreds of separate (and often competing) local, state, national, and international police agencies that now monitor us. Each breakthrough is hailed by the authorities as an essential tool for protecting you and me from "bad guys." Few politicians are willing to question that, so more tax dollars and broadly invasive authority constantly surge into the automation of surveillance, while our privacy steadily seeps out of the system.
Tracking you. Stakeouts, wiretaps, and actually tailing suspects have required police to specify their suspicion of wrongdoing and get a judge's okay to snoop. Last November, however, Obama's Justice Department argued before the Supreme Court that police are free to track anyone they want (even people not suspected of a crime) by secretly attaching a GPS device to the target's car. No warrant necessary, claimed the Justice Department, because people have no right to expect the movement of their cars on public roadways to be private.
The Supremes were stunned to hear the government's lawyer say that the police could easily slip GPS trackers onto the judges' own cars and follow their travels for weeks or more. The technology, he insisted, merely makes agents more efficient in their job of capturing data. However this pill proved too bitter for even the prosecutor-coddling Roberts Court to swallow -- the Justices ruled unanimously on January 23 that such GPS tracking violates the Fourth Amendment's privacy rights.