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By Tom Cushing

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About this blog: The Raucous Caucus shares the southpaw perspectives of this Boomer on the state of the nation, the world, and, sometimes, other stuff. I enjoy crafting it to keep current, and occasionally to rant on some issue I care about deeply...  (More)

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Mike and Dianne and Bernie and Rand

Uploaded: Jun 10, 2013
At long last, we've found an issue that can unite House Republican leader Mike Rogers with our own Senate stalwart Dianne Feinstein, as well as libertarian Sen. Rand Paul and uber-liberal Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders – albeit in opposite corners of a strange, new political bed. The disclosure that the Feds are compiling massive volumes of surveillance data on US citizens has prompted a much needed debate on the right to privacy in an internet-addled world. How that conversation is resolved will have much to do with the nation we become.

Although facts continue to emerge, we seem to know this much: that the National Security Agency has records of your-and-my phone calls and on-line habits, dating back several years. Although I'd be embarrassed for The Brass to know just how prosaic My life is, I suspect a few of You may have reason for greater or different concerns. The point is this: is there a limit to the private places the government may intrude into our lives, even to pursue its own view of our protection?

The Right to Privacy that's in-issue here is a curious beast. Look for it in the Bill of Rights; it cannot be found there. Rather it was announced by the Supreme Court in a 1965 case that challenged the right of the State of Connecticut to enforce its law banning the use of contraceptives (how times change!). Justice Douglas concluded for a 7-2 majority that if you roll-up parts of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments into a ball and consider what they stand-for, it's something like a right to privacy – that there are places in people's lives where the government has no interest (read: no business) going. The marital bedroom being one such location, the Supremes overturned the CT statute as a violation of that right to be left alone by the government.

The implication for our purposes here is that the NSA's sweeping, dragnet-style surveillance undoubtedly vacuums-up lots (and lots) of data that also qualifies as private = none of its business. In so doing, it raises similar kinds of "serve vs. protect" issues discussed hereabouts a few weeks ago.

The Protectors, including Mike and Dianne, tout the use of these data to thwart terrorist plottings, notably including a plan to attack the NYC subways in 2009. They also claim that the information itself is innocuous ("nobody's listening to your calls," promises The Prez), that it's fully authorized by the USA Patriot Act, and as such, involves multiple layers of judicial scrutiny.

Detractors like Rand and Bernie argue that dragnets are traditionally disfavored in the law because of their potential for abuse – that is, part of being a Free People ought to mean being free from government interjection into private lives unless there's a good reason, like "probable cause" that somebody did something wrong. The mere possession of all that data raises the potential for its miss-use – indeed, it practically begs for it.

They also note that there may be less to the judicial oversight than meets the eye – all-but-one of almost 2,000 requests for judicial authorization have been approved. At that rate, the court will need to replace its rubber stamp mighty soon. They also suggest that there are other routes to capture of wrong-doers that don't raise these kinds of Person-of-Interest concerns.

So whether you believe the government is actively venal (Paul) or just has potential so to be (Sanders), the programs ought to be severely circumscribed. Mr. Obama, fighting a rear-guard action, said he "welcomes the conversation" we are about to have on this topic. While that statement might actually be credible if he hadn't been forced to acknowledge those programs via yet-another Hated Leak, he IS correct that the conversation is timely.

I think the detractors have the better part of this argument. You don't set-up systems to have to rely on the goodwill of their administrators to prevent abuses. Even the best of those administrators too-often come to over-trust their own judgments, made as they are in a cloister of righteously like-minded individuals. Giving much benefit of considerable doubt, it may be that the IRS functionaries who targeted Tea Party filings were so remarkably blinded. As to the worst administrator instincts, does the name J. Edgar Hoover ring a bell? We shouldn't have to rely on fragile discretion or the absence of malice. I'm reminded of one of the great sound-bites of all-time: a civil rights advocate who was asked whether he trusted the President (Mr. Reagan, at the time), replied "I trust my mother." That's Perfect -- me, too.

In an important way, this situation follows from the theme of Mr. Obama's speech last week. In it, he called for a recasting of the War on Terror – a perpetual war-footing raises dangerous risks for the very civil liberties that Americans hold dear, and that make this land "exceptional." The Patriot Act that enabled these surveillance programs was passed early in the post 9/11 wartime era. It went too far in facilitating this kind of intrusion into the privacy of everyone, and it needs to be substantially narrowed.

Paul Krugman made a salient point on one of the Sunday morning shows, crediting an article in a Yale publication. It was to the effect that the technology is out there; it will be used. The question is whether we choose to make it the Servant of a free society in the open, or the Master -- in secret.

Synopsis: Government data-gathering authority under the Patriot Act has shown itself to be too broad, and needs a good narrowing to protect the privacy of everyone.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by American, a resident of Danville,
on Jun 11, 2013 at 7:39 am

Very well written, thought provoking analysis.

One question that I have not seen answered anywhere is did this program start with President Bush after 9-11, or did it start with President Obama? I would think that immediately after 9-11, there was a need to move quickly with programs to attempt to intercept additional terrorist plots, some which may have been quasi-legal, some which may have been completely illegal but driven by fear of the unknown and with a limited time span to quickly uncover additional terrorist plots.

I also think that when you have leaders of all political ideologies, from the far right to the far left, objecting to a program, there is a good chance the program needs to be eliminated as it clearly is pushing the envelope, ethically, morally, not to mention legally.

That being said, I would be much more upset if the actual content of the phone calls were being recorded, rather than listing the numbers you called and the length of the calls. I think I have a reasonable expectation of privacy as to the content of the calls, but as to the phone numbers I called and length of the call, those things appear on every standard phone bill and are seen by numerous phone company employees, so the expectation of privacy is much watered down.

I would also like more of an explanation from President Obama as to how effective this program really is at curbing and catching terrorist. Is this program really reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of evidence to fight terrorism, or is it simply a fishing endeavor with the hope that somehow it leads to something of value?

Finally, like all programs, the devil is in the details, and it is only as good as the people working on it. All is takes is one bad apple to take arguably private information and use it for political, not national security reasons, and unfortunately history has shown that bad apples are often attracted to these type of programs.

Posted by Dave, a resident of Danville,
on Jun 11, 2013 at 1:12 pm

I think that we can reasonably expect that the government does record the content of both telephone calls and emails (including attachments), which are then scanned automatically by highly sophisticated software that searches for keywords and patterns. The content of those telephone conversations and emails that are culled out are then read/analyzed by government employees/contractors -- whether or not there is any "reasonable suspicion" that the sender or recipient had committed a crime.

So, even though not EVERY telephone conversation or email is "read/listened to," the government's denial is really just a matter of semantics.

We should be very concerned about this intrusion into our privacy.

The fact that the program operates almost entirely in secret has deprived us of our opportunity to challenge it, or even to exercise our democratic rights to petition our representatives for change.

Posted by Salvatore, a resident of Diablo,
on Jun 13, 2013 at 7:02 am

Since October 2011 the FBI has been banned from doing ANY of this on mosques!!! Partly why the marathon bombing brothers were not detected!

Posted by Sal, a resident of Diablo,
on Jun 13, 2013 at 7:04 am

Obama's Snooping Excludes Mosques, Missed Boston Bombers Web Link #IBDEditorials via @IBDinvestors

Posted by Concerned Citizen, a resident of Danville,
on Jun 13, 2013 at 7:36 am

I believe Edward Snowden is a hero. The government is wrong and corrupt. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We've already seen so much grotesque abuse of power. Why hasn't anything been done about this? Google and those tech folks are lying - they don't have to give DIRECT ACCESS to the government to allow them access to their records. Anything with a power cable is hackable. Plus, the Internet runs over the government servers so let's not lie to each other. Full disclosure.

On a daily basis, American citizens are being treated like terrorists. When our children go to schools - metal detectors. When we enter the airport - take off shoes, metal detectors. When we enter hospitals, courtrooms, and schools you need to fill our a barrage of forms and complete physical exams and specimen samples (gets reported back to the government). Our police force are coming after citizens in droves to collect their funds for pensions - speeding tickets, vehicle searches, etc. Obama has not uttered one word of truth - nor have any of his political cronies. They are all bad. The political system is another government system where division and categorization should be stopped - no parties should mean less targeting, right?

Now, the government is spying on their citizens - all in the name of terrorism. I got an idea. How about we lock down our borders. Take our strong-able bodied prisoners and use them to build the infrastructure to support our borders. I believe we should take ownership and pride of being Americans. How about we unite with a plan?

- lock up borders
- stop government spending
- drop taxes to flat rate of 10%
- grant amnesty to all folks here and don't let anyone else in until we've resolved our internal issues
- balance the budget
- no more salaries for politicians or government representatives, it's a privilege to serve your country
- close down lots and lots of federal offices and programs which are wasteful, costly, and stupid
- no more CZARs
- no more cops and no more new laws. We have enough! Every citizen should have the right to arm themselves. Let's simplify. One law - don't hurt other people. You can't wait for cops to show up and half the time they just do paperwork and have no value. We should have the same rights as cops. We are all citizens under the constitution. Why does their title allow them to have additional perks and considered above the law? I want to be able to carry a gun too.
- every citizen should know their rights. The laws and punishments vary. There are so many laws not even the cops know them all so they pick only the ones they want to enforce. This is called persecution... Be careful when you leave your house. Know your rights.

Let's bring back pride in America. Pride in ourselves. Pride in each other. We are an amazing people with love in our hearts and respect for others. We can do a better job! I have young children and want only the best for them. We deserve better! We're definitely paying for it...

Posted by spcwt, a resident of Danville,
on Jun 13, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Someday, we may not have a supreme leader as beneficent as our dear President Obama, who might abuse this spying apparatus.

(The previous sentence was written partly for the benefit of the NSA eavesdroppers who are no doubt monitoring this website, and partly written for comic effect).

The U.S. spends $80 billion per year on spying. That?s $80 billion (with a B) that can?t be used on deficit reduction, lowering taxes, or wasted on worthless liberal spending binges.

Both the fiscally responsible people of this country and the Obama spenders like Tom should agree that this $80 billion is best spent elsewhere.

Sadly, I expect this spy spending to continue unabated, as the bulk of Americans and people in Congress are a bunch mainstream Republicans and Democrats who are beholden to the military industrial complex and are ruled by fear rather than rational thought.

We can no longer rely on the Supreme Court to enforce our inalienable rights, one of which is to be secure in our persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. Bush, Obama and their crafty lawyers have whittled these rights away. They are now essentially meaningless.

I guess the best we can do is ?enjoy the decline.?

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Jun 16, 2013 at 7:36 am

All: This new column by Gail Collins (usually funny, but deadly serious here) demonstrates the downside of this kind of 'oversight.' As a father of daughters, who has never been to Spain either (but I have been to Oklahoma), these consequences are chilling. Web Link

Take a look!

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