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Under Pressure

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Message Jayne Stahl
Confiding today that they were "under pressure" from the president to pass new legislation that enhances the government's ability to eavesdrop, intercept, and monitor communications without a warrant and in defiance of F.I.S.A., the House passed the controversial measure. And, while the bill comes with a six month expiration date, one is not convinced that the institutional lethargy which has seized Congress, over the past six years, in the face of executive hubris, will subside, and give way to much-needed discourse on what constitutes terror, who gets to decide that, what constitutes a legitimate threat, and how to deal with it. (NYT)

If nothing else, passage of this legislation proves that the reign of abstraction launched by this administration ,in the days after 9/11, is thriving, and is no longer limited to phrases like "war on terror," but now extends to granting permission to wiretap, eavesdrop, and otherwise interfere with personal communications, without oversight, as long as those communications "concern a person abroad." Given all those who qualify as persons abroad, one can only surmise that this monitoring ability covers a lot of territory.

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, asserts that the measure "does violence to the Constitution," (NYT) which is all well and good, but can we have some specifics please. Americans have the right to know exactly what changes are being enforced for the next six months, what new powers are being vested in this attorney general (who can use a bit of surveillance himself), as well as what constitutes "overseas" communications, who is covered by the phrase "overseas," what paramaters, if any, are in place to ensure that eavesdropping is limited only to those under suspicion. One has come to believe, over the past six years, that everyone is under suspicion, and this is totally unacceptable.

Administration claims that the F.I.S.A. law, of thirty years ago, which requires warrants, is outmoded, but disabling the Fourth Amendment, and setting up an infrastructure in which illegal search and seizure is justified merely by invoking the shibboleth "terrorism suspect" sure as hell isn't workable either. And, as for taking comfort in the fact that this measure is scheduled to sunset in 6 months, keep in mind that the USA Patriot Act was also originally intended to sunset, in a matter of months, and this president managed to bully Congress into finalizing that legislation. Congress is conspicuously quiet with regard to the Patriot Act some sections of which are especially pernicious, such as Section 215 which allows federal agents to pressure librarians into turning over records in open-ended investigations.

It's high time that Congress take the vice president's lead, and secede from the executive branch. If Democrats, in Congress, have been bullied, as they claim, into signing this measure, it's only because they've allowed themselves to be overpowered by an executive whose authority knows no bounds. Clearly, this administration is hiding behind abstractions, and a circus of fear. Had members of the House and Senate taken the time needed to closely read the USA Patriot Act, it would never have passed, in the first place, let alone been finalized. An attorney general who, while White House counsel, showed up to the hospital bed of his predecessor to pressure him to endorse a dubious program must be suspect, and any legislation that enhances his power must be equally suspect.

This latest insult to the Constitution should not have been allowed to pass. It is up to voting Americans to demand from all prospective presidential candidates that they carefully articulate, and delineate their stand on the NSA, as well as a program that legitimizes governmental eavesdropping. Set your alarm clock, there needs to be accountability, and answers, when the six months are up.
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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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