by Elliot D. Cohen
Amid public outcry, in 2003, Congress defunded the Bush Administration's Total Information Awareness (TIA) project, a massive Orwellian technology-driven surveillance and data mining initiative. Now, it is attempting to pass through the FISA Amendments Act of 2007 (S. 2248), a bill that would affectively give legal standing and retroactive legal immunity to a major component of this project.
S. 2248 is now before the Senate Judiciary, and will be voted on in just a few days. Unless public opposition is once again vigilant and strong, this new TIA bill has a good chance of passing in committee and of reaching the full Senate floor. Unfortunately, the dire consequences of this legislation for the survival of democracy in America, including the potential to destroy fair elections, have been greatly muted, misrepresented, and downplayed by the mainstream media; and mounting pressure on Congress from both the Bush Administration and the giant telecommunication corporations have combined to increase the odds that S. 2248 will soon become law.
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties organization based in San Francisco that has filed a class action suit against AT&T, the company had installed a fiber-optic splitter at its San Francisco office that copies all e-mails and other Internet traffic passing through the system and deposits these copies into a separate government computer network. The EFF alleges that the secret NSA rooms, to which the copies are sent, contain "powerful computer equipment connected to separate networks. This equipment is designed to analyze communications at high speed, and can be programmed to review and select out the contents and traffic patterns of communications according to user-defined rules" (emphasis added).
Unfortunately, proposed bill, S. 2248 uses the 1978 FISA law's definition of "content" to legally protect telecom companies to systematically and en mass acquire and provide government with the contents of any and all communications to which a United States person is a party. This is in glaring contradiction to the nature and purposes of the 1978 FISA act in the first place -- which was to protect American citizens from falling victim to government eavesdropping while at the same time providing facility for government to conduct surveillance of "the acquisition of the contents of communications transmitted by means of communications used exclusively between or among foreign powers" (emphasis added).
Not only does the current bill insulate the telecoms from lawsuits made by private citizens; but it also preempts investigations by state governments. According to Section 803, "No State shall have the authority to-- '(1) conduct an investigation into an electronic communication service provider's alleged assistance to an element of the intelligence community' or to "(2) require through regulation or any other means the disclosure of information about an electronic communication service provider's alleged assistance to an element of the intelligence community…" The proposed bill therefore provides ironclad retroactive legal protection to the telecoms.
In the United States, no American person, corporate or otherwise, can be lawfully given legal immunity to violate the Constitutional rights of other American persons. Provision 1801(h) of the said 1978 FISA act clearly states,
no contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party shall be disclosed, disseminated, or used for any purpose or retained for longer than 72 hours unless a court order under section 1805 of this title is obtained….
This was the law of the land that prevailed between September 11, 2001 and January 17, 2007, the times to which S. 2248 exempts the telecom companies from legal accountability. These companies are American persons and are therefore legally accountable. To exempt one person from legal requirements in order that this person can violate the constitutional rights of other American persons violates equal protection under the law, and is unconstitutional. In giving these companies a free pass, Congress will affectively be relinquishing the rule of law.
During Nazi Germany, Hitler enlisted IBM's punch card computer technologies to identify Jews, trace their ancestral roots, and ultimately exterminate them. With the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure -- and consequently the chilling of First Amendment rights of free speech and the press -- the specter of Nazi Germany hovers over America. If history teaches anything, it is that such unregulated unitary executive authority portends grave risks to national security.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D. is a media ethicist and critic. His most recent book is "The Last Days of Democracy: How Big Media and Power-Hungry Government Are Turning America Into a Dictatorship." He is a first-prize winner of the 2007 Project Censored Award.