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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 6/8/13

How Secrecy Stops Debate on Secrecy

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Source: Consortium News
Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

Glenn Greenwald, reporting in the U.K. Guardian this week, revealed a secret U.S. court document ordering Verizon, one of America's biggest telecom providers, to turn over telephone records of millions of U.S. customers. It also seemed clear that other telecom companies had received similarly broad subpoenas.

On Friday, President Barack Obama insisted that the collected data was limited in nature because it did not include the actual content of the calls, and he maintained that this tradeoff of privacy for security was necessary if the American people wanted to be protected from acts of terrorism. Further, he argued that Congress and the Judiciary had oversight of the program.

However, civil liberties advocates challenged the government's assurances, noting that the secrecy that has enveloped such programs has prevented any serious debate about the tradeoffs. Dennis J Bernstein discussed this issue with human rights attorney Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

DB: What exactly happened here. Is this really a big deal?

SB: Sure. This is a big deal particularly because the disclosure of this document and the document is a secret court order issued by the FISA court giving the FBI the authority to monitor and spy on millions of Americans, at once, in a single order, under section 215 of the Patriot Act. This document reveals for the first time in evidence what whistleblowers and even members of Congress have long said -- specifically that the government is essentially waging an all-out war on the rights of we, the American people.

Senator Ron Wyden, in particular, a Democrat from Oregon, has said that Americans would voice widespread outrage if we knew what the government was doing, in secret, under the Patriot Act. And ... while this particular order did not allow for content to be captured by the government, other surveillance programs do, outside the context of this particular order, this is a single order that is the tip of the iceberg. And even the tip is terrifying. The whole iceberg we haven't even come close to grappling with yet.

DB: I notice that a whistleblower from that agency, Thomas Drake, who I believe was just vindicated. He says he's been hollering into the deep, dark shadows of these surveillance states since October 2001, and then via the press starting 2006 about this Orwellian threat. He goes on, he says about this today about Verizon: "Now we have an order for all call records for millions, upon millions of Verizon subscribers without probable cause, just because the government wants them. That's about profiling."

Talk a little bit about the dangers of this. What do you suppose he means by profiling? And what doors this opens?

SB: So, in terms of the profiling comment, if anything I would say that it's the inverse of profiling. Profiling is when you select people for arbitrary scrutiny, perhaps on the basis of our race, or our religion, and that is illegitimate. This is equally illegitimate for the opposite direction. People have not been selected, at all. It's just a blanket dragnet. So dragnet versus profiling. They're both offensive but for somewhat opposite reasons.

And in particular, what he's talking about in terms of the potential dangers, simply the possibility that this sort of power could be misused, in the past was sufficient reason for we the people in the United States not to accept these kinds of programs. And I have heard some people suggest that, "Well this program is supposedly helpful for national security." But that's not actually the point. Because even if it were helpful for national security, which remains unconfirmed, no one's actually given anyone the facts in the public to confirm that talking point the government officials have been saying. Even if it were helpful for security, however, there are grave threats to democracy that this kind of power presents.

And it goes like this: in the very recent past the government has already gone after the Associated Press, the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party. Right? So it doesn't matter where you are coming from on the political spectrum. If you are an activist, you are a target. You don't even have to be an activist. You can just be a member of the press, and you are target.

And if that's the case, the ability of the government to conduct pervasive, dragnet surveillance of this sort, enabling agencies like the FBI or the NSA to map social networks, creates the very real, I dare say, inevitable likelihood of these powers being bent to nefarious purposes. That's why courts are important, to make sure that people in the Executive Branch aren't just pursuing personal piques or political crackdowns. That they are actually using their authority in the ways that they are supposed to. And it' is precisely because the secret FISA court is a mere rubber stamp, that we can't have any confidence of that kind of good-governance practice in these surveillance programs.

DB: Now, again, it's important to point out that this happens under a so-called liberal administration, under a Democrat. But it does appear that this Democrat, that this president is hell bent on an intensive program to suppress any open flow of information and seriously punish whistleblowers who try and break this seal, break this open.

SB: Absolutely. And it's a whole other reason to be concerned about this in the context of this disclosure that most news outlets, quite frankly, haven't picked up on. And, I'm glad that you seized upon it. We know about this document because some whistleblower somewhere is risking their career so that we, the public, can know what is happening.

And at the moment, the Obama administration is already our nation's far-and-away most aggressive anti-press administration. Right? There are more national security whistleblowers who have faced prosecution in the last five years than in the entire preceding 225-year history of the Republic. And in that context, I think it is fairly predictable that whoever leaked this document to Glenn Greenwald at the U.K. Guardian may themselves become an object of prosecution. I think it was just two weeks ago, that the President spoke in a very welcome speech, with some great rhetoric, about the need for transparency and checks and balances, to keep the government honest.

That rhetoric flew in very sharp contrast with the reality, and while the President, very appropriately suggested, though ironically given the FBI's assault on the Associated Press, while he suggested support for a reporter's shield law, what he did not discuss -- and what this document makes very clear we need -- is a robust protection for whistleblowers as well as members of the press to insure that Congress, the courts, and the public have the vital information we need to explore and have an opportunity to investigate whether or not these kinds of powers are being misused.

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)

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