It seems that there was once a time when Democrats decried the excesses of the surveillance state expanded under the Bush administration. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama confidently assured Ivy League adulators in a campaign speech at Dartmouth College that, if elected, the age of George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program would come to an abrupt close.
Democratic senator and soon-to-be Secretary of State John Kerry blasted this domestic spying scheme in 2006 as a “clear violation of the law” and called for a special counsel to investigate possible illegality, while then Attorney General Eric Holder lamented that “I never thought I would see a president act in direct defiance of federal law.” Al Gore even mused that these wiretaps could constitute an impeachable offense.
Today many of these same Democrats seem to have forgotten their previous concerns over privacy and civil liberties in favor of expanded state surveillance. On Dec. 29, the Democrat controlled Senate, including Sen. Kerry, voted by nearly a three-quarters margin (73-23) to extend the controversial surveillance measure for another five years. Campaign promises notwithstanding, Obama signed the bill into law behind closed doors the next day.
The dubious program began under the Bush Administration in the months following the 2001 terrorist attacks. It allowed electronic snooping by the National Security Agency (NSA) to read overseas electronic correspondence to include internet records, emails and phone conversations of any individual outside of the United States, without reasonable suspicion or a judge’s wiretapping warrant.
Of course, this unprecedented cyber-dragnet inevitably captured a massive amount of unsuspecting American citizens’ private correspondence as they, or their electronic servers, communicated across international borders, and enabled the NSA to sift through the data irrespective of national status.
The program further allowed the NSA to collect information on an American citizen for seven days without court oversight and only when the government specifically implicated an American citizen for targeted surveillance would a warrant be retroactively sought from a secret court. Such a system looked to be ripe for Orwellian style abuse, and was even declared illegal by a federal judge in 2010. Other questions remained, such as whether foreign intelligence agencies are encouraged to spy on Americans and swap the information with one of the federal government’s sixteen spy agencies in order to avoid weak technicalities.
Would any readers wager that their emails have never been scanned unknowingly by a government algorithm-driven software program designed to pick out suspicious combinations of designated words?
In 2008 legislators passed this first Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA) bill that granted the illegal Bush-era spy program a legal aegis and bestowed immunity to telecommunication companies who aided and abetted the government in its illegal domestic data collection scheme. However a sunset provision of five years mandated the law’s expiration on Dec. 31, which set up another confrontation between the lofty promises of candidate Obama and cynical machinations of Obama.
This Bush-era program, once so derided by Democrats, has again been codified into law and glazed with a phony veneer of legality by wide bipartisan consent. Despite past abuses and little oversight, both legislative bodies and the president approved of the program’s extension with little debate.
Unfortunately, the Senate easily crushed those few senators who attempted to add amendments to deliver a modicum of protections to American citizens. Sen. Rand Paul tried to affix an amendment specifically encasing electronic correspondence within Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. His fellow senators rejected his provision by 79-12.
Sen. Jeff Merkley proposed an amendment requiring the government to disclose the NSA’s secret court proceedings. Again, it failed to pass by a margin of 54-37.
Sen. Patrick Leahy tried to add slightly more oversight to the bill and shorten its reauthorization time, but only managed a paltry 38 votes in favor. Finally, Sen. Ron Wyden attempted to attach a bill requiring a report on the previous effects of warrantless surveillance on Americans’ privacy, but fellow senators again defeated the amendment by 52-43. Disconcertingly, even these milquetoast amendments to provide a scrap of restraint against government surveillance failed to attract enough support to pass.
The ever-growing ability for the federal government to snoop, spy and intercept the daily communications of American citizens appears truly troubling, despite bureaucrats’ soothing assurances of paternal benevolence. Even more distressing is the evaporation of Democrats’ once principled defensive positions surrounding Fourth Amendment rights, and the migration of such concerns from the mainstream to political fringe.
Lamentably, the vast majority of Republicans also remain apathetic or even hostile to notions of personal liberty and privacy from government eyes. Hopefully constitutional protections against unlawful searches and mass invasions of privacy by governmental dragnets will someday return in vogue.