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The New York Times published quotes from White House officials warning against the Patriot Act sunset on Thursday. (Photo: Torrenegra/flickr/cc)

Corporate Media Accused of Parroting Fear-Mongering over Patriot Act

Privacy advocates say outlets like New York Times spread 'government propaganda' by publishing uncritical White House quotes

Nadia Prupis

With key provisions of the USA Patriot Act nearing a long-awaited expiration date, there remains one last adversary to take down in the fight for privacy rights: the corporate media.

The most recent case is the New York Times, which on Thursday quoted several anonymous White House officials who warned that allowing the Patriot Act to sunset is akin to "playing national security Russian roulette" and leaves intelligence agencies in "uncharted waters...fraught with unnecessary risk."

If Congress fails to strike a deal to renew the Patriot Act's controversial Section 215 by its June 1 deadline, the officials warned that the result would "suspend crucial domestic surveillance authority at a time of mounting terrorism threats."

But as other national security experts note, the Patriot Act is far from a safeguard against terrorism. In an op-ed published last Sunday, ACLU legal deputy director Jameel Jaffer criticized the media's choice of publishing such quotes wholesale without challenging their veracity. The "claim that the expiration of Section 215 would deprive the government of necessary investigative tools or compromise national security," wrote Jaffer, "is entirely without support."

Jaffer continued:

In a last-ditch effort to scare lawmakers into preserving unpopular and much-abused surveillance authorities, the Senate Republican leadership and some intelligence officials are warning that allowing Section 215 of the Patriot Act to sunset would compromise national security.

The sunset of Section 215 would undoubtedly be a significant political loss for the intelligence community, and it would be a sensible first step towards broader reform of the surveillance laws, but there’s no support for the argument that the sunset of Section 215 would compromise national security.

Several analyses, including one by the Department of Justice released just last week, have shown the surveillance allowed by Section 215 to be ineffective.

As journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote at The Intercept on Thursday, the Times' reporting exemplifies "the principal weapons that have poisoned post-9/11 political discourse in the U.S."

Greenwald, who helped expose the NSA's mass surveillance programs with the publication of whistleblower Edward Snowden's cache of classified intelligence documents in 2013, said the media's acceptance of White House statements is "government propaganda masquerading as a news article."

"In other words," Greenwald wrote, "it’s a perfect museum exhibit for how government officials in both parties and American media outlets have collaborated for 15 years to enact one radical measure after the next and destroy any chance for rational discourse about it."

Not all media outlets have parroted the administration's line. The Seattle Times editorial board on Wednesday said it was "time to say goodbye and good riddance to government collection of Americans’ electronic communications data."

The Seattle Times continued:

Congress should let the deadline for renewing Section 215 pass so lawmakers can continue discussing, under less pressure, how to proceed and balance the demands of national security with the protection of privacy and civil liberties.

But don't let Section 215 completely fade away. Its misuse should continue to remind Americans of the importance of standing firm on principles even in uncertain times.


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