26 U.S. senators have sent a formal letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asking whether its spy programs “essentially relied for years on a secret body of law,” according to Slate.com.
Among the questions:
– How long has the NSA used PATRIOT Act authorities to engage in bulk collection of Americans’ records? Was this collection underway when the law was reauthorized in 2006?
– Has the NSA used USA PATRIOT Act authorities to conduct bulk collection of any other types of records pertaining to Americans, beyond phone records?
– Has the NSA collected or made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site location data in bulk?
– Have there been any violations of the court orders permitting this bulk collection, or of the rules governing access to these records? If so, please describe these violations.
– Please identify any specific examples of instances in which intelligence gained by reviewing phone records obtained through Section 215 bulk collection proved useful in thwarting a particular terrorist plot.
Here’s a refresher on what the PATRIOT Act is: Very soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, a set of surveillance laws, according to ACLU.org. The act was meant to avert future attacks by aggressively monitoring communications between possible terrorists. Unfortunately for average American citizens, that monitoring has become so aggressive that everyone’s information can be collected and analyzed. What’s particularly disturbing is that much of what we are hearing now through Edward Snowden’s recent revelations is not brand new- the government’s been engaging in mass surveillance since the PATRIOT Act took hold. PRISM, the spy program Snowden was a small player in, is just a more muscular and recent addition to an already existing set of programs and policies.
Even more disturbing is the fact that both the PATRIOT Act and PRISM have many aspects to them that are top-secret, which makes it difficult to even know what’s going on, much less do something about it.
Personally, I am glad that these senators are finally doing their jobs- serving the people. It’s a shame that only 26 of them are doing this, but at least it’s happening. They are demanding answers to the questions we all want to know. They are demanding accountability. I wonder, though, if these senators are really so unaware of the far-reaching power that both spy programs afford the government (mind you, without any real court authorization)? Under the PATRIOT Act alone, the feds can, according to ACLU.org:
-Search your home and not even tell you. The Act allows law enforcement to conduct secret “sneak and peek” searches of your home. Investigators can enter your home or office, take pictures and seize items without informing you that a warrant was issued for a very long time – if ever.
– Collect information on what books you read, what you study, your purchases, your medical history and your personal finances. The Act gives law enforcement broad access to any types of records – educational, medical, financial, sales, library, etc. – without probable cause of a crime. It also prohibits the holders of this information, like librarians, from disclosing that they have produced such records, under the threat of jail time. While a court order is required to obtain the information, the Act requires that a judge rubber stamp such orders.
– Spy on innocent Americans. The Act permits a vast array of information gathering on U.S. citizens to be collected and shared with the CIA (and other non-law enforcement officials) without proper judicial oversight or other safeguards. This law effectively puts the CIA back in the business of spying on Americans.
At least these senators are doing something. As the public, we need to make sure we keep an eye on Washington so that both programs are either dismantled completely, or at least brought under the scrutiny of the Constitution.
Constitutional rights were created specifically to protect us from unfair or overzealous police and government prosecution and persecution. Need an example of what happens when a person’s rights are violated? Look no further than death penalty states in which (at least) dozens of people, mostly black men, have languished on death row due to ineffective counsel, corruption in the courts, or other factors often due to racism. Some of these men, many of whom are already dead, were innocent. In fact, there are lawyers who work for little or nothing specifically to help death row inmates get a second chance at a fair trial. They have proven that, at least in some cases, death row inmates were innocent. In the best case scenarios, these inmates live to walk out of prison as free men. In the worst cases, they die waiting for someone to hear them.
What do you think would happen to you if you were labeled a terrorist? Without rights, the government has free rein over your life once it charges you with an act of terrorism. And it won’t matter that you don’t having anything incriminating in your possession or your background- you don’t have rights, remember? There was no search warrant, no judge. And if you beg and cry and say it’s not fair and ask why, they’ll just say, “That’s classified.”