Posts tagged ‘wiretaps’

Sacrificing Privacy for, Err, for What?

Wiretaps and government surveillance is on the rise, and it has little to do with terrorism.  The failed war on drugs continues to be the main excuse for assaults on privacy:

State and federal investigators obtained 3,194 wiretap orders in 2010, an increase of 34 percent over the previous year, and a whopping 168 percent increase over 2000. Only one wiretap application was denied—which you can choose to take as evidence that law enforcement is extremely scrupulous in seeking applications, or that judges tend to rubber stamp them, according to your preferred level of paranoia. Just half the states reported any wiretaps, and nearly 68 percent of the total 1,987 state wiretaps were attributable to just three states: California, New York and New Jersey....

Still, this invasive technique is still reserved for investigating the most serious violent crimes, right? Alas, no: For 84 percent of wiretap applications (2,675 wiretaps), the most serious offense under investigation involved illegal drugs. Further proof, if proof were needed, that privacy suffers enormous collateral damage in our failed drug war. Drugs have long been the reason for the vast majority of wiretaps, but that trend, too, is on the upswing: Drug cases accounted for “just” 75 percent of intercept orders in 2000.

I Was Afraid of This

Unchecked executive power seems to be a bad thing only when weilded by the other guy:

The Obama administration is again invoking government secrecy in defending the Bush administration's wiretapping program, this time against a lawsuit by AT&T customers who claim federal agents illegally intercepted their phone calls and gained access to their records.

Disclosure of the information sought by the customers, "which concerns how the United States seeks to detect and prevent terrorist attacks, would cause exceptionally grave harm to national security," Justice Department lawyers said in papers filed Friday in San Francisco.

Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lawyer for the customers, said Monday the filing was disappointing in light of the Obama presidential campaign's "unceasing criticism of Bush-era secrecy and promise for more transparency."

"Trust Me" is not supposed to be the defining principle in the Constitution for the excercise of power.

More, via Cory Doctorow:

Every defining attribute of Bush's radical secrecy powers -- every one -- is found here, and in exactly the same tone and with the exact same mindset. Thus: how the U.S. government eavesdrops on its citizens is too secret to allow a court to determine its legality. We must just blindly accept the claims from the President's DNI that we will all be endangered if we allow courts to determine the legality of the President's actions. Even confirming or denying already publicly known facts -- such as the involvement of the telecoms and the massive data-mining programs -- would be too damaging to national security. Why? Because the DNI says so. It is not merely specific documents, but entire lawsuits, that must be dismissed in advance as soon as the privilege is asserted because "its very subject matter would inherently risk or require the disclosure of state secrets."

What's being asserted here by the Obama DOJ is the virtually absolute power of presidential secrecy, the right to break the law with no consequences, and immunity from surveillance lawsuits so sweeping that one can hardly believe that it's being claimed with a straight face. It is simply inexcusable for those who spent the last several years screaming when the Bush administration did exactly this to remain silent now or, worse, to search for excuses to justify this behavior. As EFF's Bankston put it: "President Obama promised the American people a new era of transparency, accountability, and respect for civil liberties. But with the Obama Justice Department continuing the Bush administration's cover-up of the National Security Agency's dragnet surveillance of millions of Americans, and insisting that the much-publicized warrantless wiretapping program is still a "secret" that cannot be reviewed by the courts, it feels like deja vu all over again."

The Newest Threat to the Republic

There are two America's:  The one that is trying to steal my freedom from the top down (wiretaps, proscutorial abuse, expanding executive power) and the one that is trying to steel freedom from the bottom up.  Reason, as quote by TJIC, has a nice piece on one of the bottom-up fascists:

Amid the hustle and bustle of downtown Los Angeles, there exists
another world, an underground world of illicit trade in - not drugs or
sex - but bacon-wrapped hot dogs. Street vendors may sell you an
illegal bacon dog, but hardly anyone will talk about it, for fear of
being hassled, shut down or worse. Our camera caught it on tape. One
minute bacon dogs are sold in plain view, the next minute cops have
confiscated carts, and ordered the dogs dumped into the trash.

Elizabeth Palacios is one of the few vendors willing to speak
publicly. "Doing bacon is illegal," she explains. Problem is customers
love bacon, and Palacios says she loses business if she doesn't give
them the bacon they demand. "Bacon is a potentially hazardous food,"
says Terrence Powell of the LA County Health Department. Continue
selling bacon dogs without county-approved equipment and you risk fines
and jail time.

Palacios knows all about that. She spent 45 days in the slammer for selling bacon dogs,
and with the lost time from work, fines, and attorney's fees, she fears
she might lose the house that bacon dogs helped buy. She must provide
for her family, but remains trapped between government regulations and
consumer demand. Customers don't care about safety codes, says
Palacios. "They just want the bacon."

TJIC, as he often does, captures a number of the best comments.  The full reason video is below:

Why George Will Gets Paid for Writing, and I Don't

While I bloviated for many screen-inches on wiretaps, detentions, and separation of powers (and here, and here), George Will nails what I was trying to say in about a paragraph.

But, then, perhaps no future president will ask for such congressional
involvement in the gravest decision government makes -- going to war. Why would
future presidents ask, if the present administration successfully asserts its
current doctrine? It is that whenever the nation is at war, the other two
branches of government have a radically diminished pertinence to governance, and
the president determines what that pertinence shall be. This monarchical
doctrine emerges from the administration's stance that warrant-less surveillance
by the National Security Agency targeting American citizens on American soil is
a legal exercise of the president's inherent powers as commander in chief, even
though it violates the clear language of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act, which was written to regulate wartime surveillance.

Will seems to think the wiretapping a reasonable approach, and thinks Congress should authorize it, but its very reasonableness or even necessity does not justify executive circumvention of the Constitution:

Besides, terrorism is not the only new danger of this era. Another is the
administration's argument that because the president is commander in chief, he
is the "sole organ for the nation in foreign affairs." That non sequitur is
refuted by the Constitution's plain language, which empowers Congress to ratify
treaties, declare war, fund and regulate military forces, and make laws
"necessary and proper" for the execution of all presidential powers
. Those
powers do not include deciding that a law -- FISA, for example -- is somehow
exempted from the presidential duty to "take care that the laws be faithfully
executed."

Fantastic Interview with Andrew Napolitano

Over the past few days, I have posted a lot on first and fourth amendment issues, from wiretaps and detentions to free speech to prosecutorial abuses.  It turns out I could have saved my self a lot of time and just linked this great interview with former Judge Andrew Napolitano.

We are in a fit of
constitutional chaos when the government views constitutional guarantees as
discretionary. As Americans, we order our lives on the belief that we have
extraordinary freedoms. We believe those freedoms don't come from the
government. They come from our humanity. The government doesn't
give freedom; the government
under the Constitution is restrained from
interfering with it. I can
basically say whatever I want about the government. I can basically travel
wherever I want to go. I can basically worship however I see fit. If the
government comes to the view that those freedoms are discretionary, no matter
how noble the stated [reason to restrict them] may be, then we're in a state of
constitutional chaos. We will not be able to order our lives based on freedom.
We won't know who will be prosecuted or who'll just be swept away.

On the Patriot Act:

Let's put aside all of
the procedural problems with enacting it. Forget about the fact that there was
no debate. Forget about the fact that most members of Congress didn't even have
an opportunity to read it. It is a direct assault on at least three amendments
to the Constitution: the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, and the Fifth
Amendment. The
PATRIOT Act legitimates the notion that if we
give up certain freedoms, the government will keep us safer. I reject that
notion from a moral and legal point of view. I also reject it from a practical
point of view. It doesn't work. The government doesn't need our freedoms to
keep us safer. No one"”no lawyer, judge, or historian"”can point to a single
incident in American history where national security was impaired because
someone insisted on their right to free speech or their right to privacy or
their right to due process.

The PATRIOT Act encourages what the
government calls "national security letters""”basically, self-written search
warrants. It violates the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits self-written search
warrants. The
PATRIOT Act and two of its predecessors, the Foreign
Intelligence Security Act of 1977 [
FISA] and the Electronic
Privacy Act of 1986, authorized the government to obtain search warrants by
bypassing [longstanding tradition in] the courts. Today an
FBI agent investigating a
person need only satisfy her or himself that the person under investigation is
a threat to national security. The agent doesn't have to demonstrate evidence
to a judge

On the regulatory state:

[The FDR era] began, in my view,
the dark part of American history where the federal government believed that it
could solve any problem that was national in scope, irrespective of whether it
was a
federal problem. A federal problem is one arising
under the 18 specific enumerated powers given to the federal government under
the Constitution. A
national problem is something
that exists in New Jersey and California and Texas and Illinois. But just
because it's national doesn't mean it's federal and therefore can be addressed
by the federal government....

In terms of the
government control of our lives, in terms of the percentage of our income that
the government takes from us, in terms of the types and the areas of human
behavior we let the government regulate, we are infinitely less free. And as
Jefferson once said, it is in the natural order of things that the government
should be greater and human
liberty lesser.

Women have
much more freedom. African Americans have much more freedom. Gays have much
more freedom. The discrimination that was rampant, and often caused by the
government, 40 or 50 or 60 years ago"”there's been progress in those areas. But
the destruction of federalism, the centralization of power in Washington, the
belief that Washington can regulate all aspects of our lives will, if not
checked, lead us to a totalitarian form of government. Freedom is the power and
ability to obey your own free will and conscience rather than the free wills
and consciences of others.

The interview also has a very useful short summary of the history of FISA and the Patriot act, and demonstrates how the incremental assaults on the fourth amendment have added up.  I encourage you to read it all.  In addition to this interview, Reason also had a good debate on the Patriot Act here.

Reviewing Detentions

Back when there was all that controversy about flushing Korans at Gitmo, my general reaction was that the charges of outright torture were overblown.  In fact, today I think all this focus on torture-lite was counter-productive, diverting attention from the core question of "no matter how well they are treated, do we have a right to indefinitely detain them at all?" 

The main theme in my posts both on detentions as well as NSA wiretaps has been that our current problems with terrorism do not justify the relaxation or overriding of our core principles of separation of powers.   If we are are going to detain people, it should be following rules laid out by Congress and with clear points of review or appeal to the judiciary.  The exact rules for Habeas Corpus may be different for people captured in Afghanistan than in Omaha, but they can't be thrown out all-together by administration fiatThe rights protected by our Constitution and its amendments are our rights as humans, not just as Americans.  Our rights not to be locked up indefinitely or not to be subject to invasive searches without a warrant predate government - they are protected by the government, not provided by the government.  As such, even foreigners, who presumably are human, possess these rights too.

It turns out that the Gitmo detentions, years after they began, are starting to get the third party scrutiny that you and I expect to get after 48 hours of detention.

If accurate, this National Journal cover story is scandalous.  Stuart Taylor's Journal column sums up the major points:

  • A high percentage, perhaps the majority, of
    the 500-odd men now held at Guantanamo were not captured on any
    battlefield, let alone on "the battlefield in Afghanistan" (as Bush asserted) while "trying to kill American forces" (as [press secretary Scott] McClellan claimed).

  • Fewer than 20 percent of the Guantanamo detainees, the best available evidence suggests, have ever been Qaeda members.
  • Many scores, and perhaps hundreds, of the detainees
    were not even Taliban foot soldiers, let alone Qaeda terrorists. They
    were innocent, wrongly seized noncombatants with no intention of
    joining the Qaeda campaign to murder Americans.

  • The majority were not captured by U.S. forces but
    rather handed over by reward-seeking Pakistanis and Afghan warlords and
    by villagers of highly doubtful reliability.

Maybe an actual government body that does not report to the President, such as the judiciary, can finally enter the fray and habeas some of their corpuses. 

And by the way, I am soooo fed up with the counter-argument, "coyote, you are more interested in the rights of terrorists than security".  I answered this here, but in the case of detentions it is perfectly clear to me that the goal of detaining demonstrably dangerous folks does not require avoidance of judicial review.  I am sure this administration like any other does not like the courts or Congress looking over its shoulder, but they have to get over it.  The Administration has decided that the other branches of government can't be trusted, and the theme of many of their recent actions has been to fight against any separation of powers restrictions on the administration.

Related thoughts:  I see decent support in polls for these detentions and wiretaps.  My sense is that people who trust Bush are OK with him taking on these powers, and people who don't trust him are horrified.  The history of the Patriot Act is illustrative of this.  Most of the Patriot Act was originally proposed by Bill Clinton in response to Oklahoma City and the first bombing of the WTC.  At that time, Republicans opposed it, eventually defeating it in the Senate with the opposition led by... John Ashcroft.  Yes, I know the argument the world changed on September 11, but I think an even more important explanation of this turnaround for Republicans is that they did not trust Clinton, so didn't give him the power, but do trust Bush.  Of course the short-sightedness of this approach is stunning, since we know no party stays in power forever.  To Republicans, if you are comfortable with Bush being able to detain people of his choice without review and to wiretap without warrant, then you need to also be comfortable with Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, or maybe Patty Murray having the same power some day.  Are you?  Really?  Because I am not comfortable giving the power to either party.

Yes, the world may have shifted on its axis on September 11, but not enough for us to throw out separation of powers.

UpdateMore here.