For ordinary Americans who realize that the government is likely spying on us all but don’t understand the extent of the issue and what to do about it, the recent debate over the USA Patriot Act in Congress has been confusing.
Three key provisions of the Patriot Act expired Sunday: Section 215, which was used to legally justify the collection of mass telephone records; the so-called Lone-Wolf provision and the roving wiretap provision. Two days later, the Senate passed the USA Freedom Act, a reform bill that the House had already passed, which President Obama rushed to sign within hours. It was the first time Congress changed surveillance laws in well over a decade.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation cautiously celebrated the passage of the USA Freedom Act, calling it “a bill placing real restrictions and oversight on the National Security Agency’s surveillance powers.” Still, the group, which is a leader in the fight against electronic surveillance, wanted far greater protections. Activist groups like Demand Progress, Credo and Fight for the Future went further by signing a statement that read, “The USA Freedom Act is a mass surveillance bill dressed up as a reform bill, and its passage will authorize unconstitutional surveillance practices.”
Public confusion on the issue reflects the activist disagreements. On June 1, a day after parts of the Patriot Act expired, CNN/ORC released a poll finding that 60 percent of Americans supported the preservation of that law. While there was greater support among Republicans, majorities held among Democrats and even those identifying as “liberal.”
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But a survey by the Pew Research Center earlier this year found the opposite: There is overwhelming support among Americans for greater controls over information being collected on them. In fact, a paltry 6 percent trust government agencies to “keep their records private and secure.”
Part of the reason for this confusion is slick propaganda employed by proponents of mass surveillance. A senior member of the Obama administration told the press that by not voting to extend the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, Congress was “playing national security Russian roulette.” That same official went on to characterize the highly contentious provisions as “uncontroversial authorities.”
Another reason for public confusion is likely a result of how pollsters ask their questions. An NPR report speculated that “survey respondents’ views on government surveillance can swing widely depending on how the question is asked.” When questions are vague, people are more likely to support surveillance than when the specific invasiveness of the surveillance is revealed.
A third reason for public confusion is the fact that laws are labeled with highly emotionally evocative titles. Congress might as well have been debating whether to choose between patriotism and freedom. Kirk Wiebe, a retired NSA officer who spent 36 years in the intelligence community, after which he became a whistleblower, told me in an interview on “Uprising” that the names of the bills “are designed to elicit emotion with words like Patriot Act and Freedom Act. It’s all psychological manipulation.”
The vast majority of Americans are struggling daily to make ends meet. They pay little attention to news about government surveillance and the finer points of one bill versus another. And who can blame them? We desperately need clarity and context in the mass discourse on this issue.
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Here’s a thought: If the job of the intelligence complex is to prevent terrorism, then we simply need to ask, has the government actually stopped terrorist acts over the last 14 years since the Sept. 11 attacks and the expansion of surveillance?
In examining the FBI specifically, a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general clearly stated that the agency “did not identify any major case developments that resulted from use of the records obtained in response to Section 215 orders.”
Marcy Wheeler, a journalist specializing in national security issues, told me in an interview that “the phone dragnet has proved not very useful at all. It’s never found a terrorist.” In fact, Wheeler cites the only incident that intelligence agencies say they used it for was “finding a guy who sent $8,500 to al-Shabab [a militant rebel group in Somalia], and not even because he supported terrorists. He was trying to fight back against the Kenyan invasion of Somalia.”
Wiebe lambasted what he called “a broken intelligence process,” in which “not only does Congress not do oversight properly ... but the NSA isn’t doing its job very well. It’s building this huge haystack and it can’t find the needles and it keeps making the haystack bigger.”
“NSA’s job is not to understand how something happens after the fact. Its job is to prevent disaster, prevent carnage, prevent harm to people and property,” said Wiebe.
In the last few years, several instances of terrorism such as the Boston Marathon bombing were not prevented. Indeed, it is impractical to imagine having a foolproof method of detecting terrorist activity. If, with such overwhelming latitude in spying as the government has had since 9/11, it still cannot keep us safe, how much more information does it need before safety is guaranteed? At what point does the price of that promised security result in the opposite of security?
Rather than harming terrorists, the government is simply harming us. On the same day the USA Freedom Act was passed, the Associated Press released a shocking investigative report on FBI surveillance. According to the report, “[t]he FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology–all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government.”
For years, reports of suspicious-looking planes flying over neighborhoods fueled fears of government surveillance, including during recent protests in Baltimore after the police-custody death of Freddie Gray. The AP report confirms those fears.
So widespread is the use of these surveillance aircraft that AP investigators found, “In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country.”
Wiebe remarked, “We are truly witnessing—and I mean it in the most serious sense—the ascension of the police state. Some people call it ‘fascism.’”
History shows us that the government can and does abuse surveillance powers to intimidate, harass and blacklist people, and to subvert social movements for progress—in particular efforts by people of color such as the Black Panther Party.
Wiebe summarized the kind of aversion we need to adopt in our thinking on this issue, saying, “We have a variety of organizations that constitute a huge intelligence police apparatus, and it’s being turned against the American people under the explanation that ‘We need to protect you.’ My goodness, that is used by every tyrannical government in history! And we’ve got to stop.”
Rather than discuss the details of how much to curb the government’s right to spy on us, Americans need to question the legitimacy of all government spying and push back as hard as possible against dubious claims to protect us. We need to see past the propaganda emerging from the mouths of those who seek to preserve their power at the cost of our freedom and our well-being.