Friday, September 15, 2006

Perhaps I spoke too hastily...

when I said earlier that I did not find anything to feel strongly about anymore. A slew of stories today in different media shook me up. One that particularly caught my attention:

Wired News reports today on a bill that "radically redefines and expands" the government's ability to eavesdrop and search the houses of U.S. citizens without court approval.
By a 10-8 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the National Security Surveillance Act (the full text available as a PDF document at a Wired News blog site), which was co-written by committee's chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) in concert with the White House... Lisa Graves, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said, "The administration has taken their illegal conduct in wiretapping Americans without court orders, in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Constitution, and used it as springboard to not only get FISA changed to allow the Terrorist Surveillance Program, but to actually, going forward, not give protections to Americans' privacy rights."

Some important provisions of this bill, according to the Wired News report:
  • Redefines surveillance so that only programs that catch the substance of a communication need oversight. Any government surveillance that captures, analyzes and stores patterns of communications such as phone records, or e-mail and website addresses, is no longer considered surveillance.
  • Expands the section of law that allows the attorney general to authorize spying on foreign embassies, so long as there's no "substantial likelihood" that an American's communication would be captured.
  • Repeals the provision of federal law that allows the government unfettered wiretapping and physical searches without warrants or notification for 15 days after a declaration of war. The lack of any congressional restraint on the president's wartime powers arguably puts the president at the height, rather than the ebb, of his powers in any time of war, even an undeclared one.
  • Repeals the provision of federal law that limits the government's wartime powers to conduct warrantless wiretapping and physical searches to a period of 15 days after a declaration of war.
  • Repeals the provision of federal law that puts a time limit on the government's wartime powers to conduct warrantless wiretapping and physical searches against Americans. Under current law, the president has that power for only 15 days following a declaration of war.
  • Allows the attorney general, or anyone he or she designates, to authorize widespread domestic spying, such as monitoring all instant-messaging systems in the country, so long as the government promises to delete anything not terrorism-related.
  • Moves all court challenges to the NSA surveillance program to a secretive court in Washington, D.C., comprised of judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Only government lawyers would be allowed in the courtroom.
  • Allows the government to get warrants for surveillance programs as a whole, instead of having to describe to a judge the particular persons to be monitored and the methods to be used.
Specter has moved to have his bill voted upon next week by voice vote, called a unanimous consent motion, according to the ACLU's Graves. Such a procedure would leave no record of who voted for or against the bill.
The United States remains justly committed to continue their fight against the global threat of terrorism. But a rather cliched expression, that goes 'Absolute power corrupts absolutely', remains true in today's world, irrespective of geographical boundaries. Which is why the great American Constitution adopted the principle of checks and balances, the separation of powers in the governance of the state. Who but the conscientious US citizens can ensure that the provisions of the Constitution are not violated by caprice?

Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1738, "Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power." And the Pennsylvania assembly, in which he served, similarly noted in 1755, "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Truer statements have never been made, particularly in today's context.

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