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Morning Report 4/6/05 Spying on You, and Other Unpatriotic Acts

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Here’s hoping for a quick death for at least part of the Patriot Act

how-to-build-house-of-lords.gif
If you build it, “they” won’t come: Here’s how to construct a House of Lords. The one in Great Britain recently stopped the Blair government from shoving through even more onerous anti-privacy provisions in that country’s version of the Patriot Act. Write to me for full instructions. (Parliament graphic)

LOTS OF DEATH lately, personal (my colleague Bob Kasner) and public. But we have to wipe away the tears and try to fight on against deadly assaults that we can actually do something about. Like the current hearings on Capitol Hill on the Patriot Act.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales kicked them off yesterday with a request for more power over our lives. Actually, this is a rare instance in which people on the left and right are united in the wish that something be left to die—they’re talking about key provisions of the Patriot Act that are slated to expire unless renewed by Congress.

The Bush regime is already examining our library records and breaking into our homes to spy on us. If you want to go beneath the generally shallow coverage of these extremely important hearings, see the ACLU’s analysis of what went on yesterday in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee:

    Of particular note, [the] hearing highlighted how the use of the Patriot Act’s secret search and surveillance authority has grown in recent years. Attorney General Gonzales admitted, for instance, that the government has used Section 215, the so-called “library records” provision, 35 times since September 2003. According to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, it had not been used before then.

Gonzales has backed off on a few things—but very slightly:

    The ACLU cautiously welcomed certain ostensible concessions [from] Gonzales, who agreed to support modifications to Section 215 clarifying that the recipient of a 215 order can consult an attorney and that the records seized must pertain to national security.

Gee, thanks, Gonzales, for allowing us the privilege of consulting an attorney.

Courtesy of the ACLU is a rundown of abuses of the Patriot Act. Of particular interest to anyone who uses the Internet (that means you, obviously) are the creepy “National Security Letter” (NSL) and the Patriot Act’s scary Section 505, which New York federal judge Victor Marrero stepped up to combat last September in Doe v. Ashcroft:

    In finding the statute unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, Judge Marrero referred repeatedly to the amendments made by Section 505. He noted as an example of the kind of abuse now authorized by the statute that it could be used to issue a NSL to obtain the name of a person who has posted a blog critical of the government, or to obtain a list of the people who have e-mail accounts with a given political organization.

    The government could not have obtained this information with an NSL prior to the Patriot Act amendment in Section 505, unless the blogger or the people with such accounts were thought to be foreign powers or agents of foreign powers.

Of course, bloggers in places like Iran have it worse. Just yesterday, Human Rights Watch called on Iran’s judiciary to stop silencing—and even torturing—bloggers:

    Between August and November 2004, judiciary agents operating on behalf of Tehran’s chief prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, detained more than 20 bloggers and internet journalists. After their release some of the detainees testified before a presidential commission, detailing their mistreatment while in detention. . . . All former detainees who appeared in front of the presidential commission provided details of their physical and psychological torture, solitary confinement, and interrogations into their private lives.

As if Iranian bloggers weren’t in enough trouble, they get no rhythm from U.S. authorities, as the Christian Science Monitor reported in early February:

    Iran’s dissenting and liberal voices, reeling from a crackdown in cyberspace by their country’s old guard, now worry about a new challenge from an unexpected quarter: America.

    The alarm sounded when the online news site Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) said that The Planet, a leading international Web-hosting firm based in Dallas, abruptly terminated its contract. Now, other Iranian websites that rely on U.S. Web servers are bracing for similar action.

    The independent voices may be getting caught up in a larger battle, some analysts argue. The shutdown, they say, may be collateral damage from “war on terror” efforts to silence Internet communications from the “axis of evil.”

U.S. authorities shouldn’t even be trying to keep us Americans from hearing other voices, no matter what the political bent. But we have our own problems internally. In America, these NSLs are spreading through our society like viruses—the government won’t even tell us how many of them the FBI has requested:

    The court concluded that hundreds of NSLs had been requested by the FBI from October 2001 through January 2003, and hundreds must have been issued during the life of the statute. The government takes the position that even the number of NSLs it issues cannot be disclosed for reasons of national security, though it has disclosed publicly to Congress a number of such uses.

Many other groups are trying to keep an eye on the government that’s trying to keep an eye on us. For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a prime source on privacy issues, not only analyzes the Doe decision but also carries the ACLU’s brief on the case.

For a thorough breakdown of yesterday’s testimony by Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller, see this morning’s Washington Post story, in which Dan Eggen provides a good political context:

    Gonzales and Mueller made clear that they believe most of the law should be made permanent, and Gonzales proposed several changes that would expand the number of foreign nationals who could be subject to secret surveillance warrants. The change was recently suggested by President Bush‘s commission on intelligence.

    In his statements, Mueller also repeated calls by Bush and other administration officials to allow terrorism investigators to use administrative subpoenas, which involve less court oversight and are deployed in cases involving drugs, health care fraud, and child exploitation.

More importantly for the long-term battle against government intrusion, Eggen also notes the coalition between some righties and some lefties in opposition to the Patriot Act:

    The testimony came on the same day that senators Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) proposed changes to the Patriot Act, including limits on the use of roving wiretaps and delayed notification warrants, in which investigators are allowed to search and seize items without immediately notifying the target of the probe.

    Their bill, known as the Security and Freedom Ensured Act, has drawn support from a disparate alliance including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Conservative Union.

See the ACLU’s reasoned explanation of the proposed SAFE bill. Here’s an excerpt:

    The ACLU said that most of the voluminous Patriot Act is actually unobjectionable from a civil liberties point of view and added that the law makes important changes that give law enforcement agents the tools they need to protect against terrorist attacks.

    A few provisions, though, unnecessarily trample civil liberties, and must be revised to bring them in line with the Constitution. To that end, the Safe Act would [scale] back the government’s authority to seize personal information—credit reports, communications records and financial information—through National Security Letters without judicial review.

    A federal court recently found the NSL statute applicable to Internet Service Providers unconstitutional because of its “unparalleled level of secrecy and coercion.” The Safe Act gives the recipient the right to ask a court to limit the request and protect privileged information. It also places limits on gag order restrictions.

If we had a parliamentary democracy, like Great Britain’s, we’d probably have more such coalitions of common interest, instead of two huge parties that make rules keeping third parties out of the process. Certainly we’d have shorter election campaigns—Tony Blair just called for a May 5 election. That means one month of televised campaign bullshit instead of our two or more years of it.

Too bad we’re stuck with this crapitalistic system in which both parties serve primarily corporate interests and bully the rest of us. Call ’em the Blutocrats. (Don’t come after me for that. I have friends in the Olive Oyl business.)