Thursday, August 16, 2007

Surveillance and the Courts

Read: U.S. Defends Surveillance to 3 Skeptical Judges - New York Times

Currently the American court system is awash in a massive amount of litigious nonsense. But there are a few cases that may actually have an impact on your life: those challenging the Fed's secret wiretapping program.

There have been three such suits: The first, brought by the ACLU, was dismissed in Cincinnati last month. The other two are currently making their way through the US Court of Appeals, brought against AT&T and the US Government.

AT&T is being sued in a class-action suit for illegally providing a back door into their network for the NSA data mining and surveillance programs. When I read about this a few months ago I was dumbfounded; it reminded me of when Google resisted handing over search data to the Feds last year, when the likes of Microsoft and Yahoo didn't even put up a fight. I already hated AT&T for its various polyopolies that it shares with other wireless companies (Verizon, Sprint, etc) and cable providers (Qwest, Comcast, etc), because they are patently anti-consumer. But when I learned I was giving money to a company that knowing disregards the law in order to accommodate a government power-grab I was furious. This case has the best chance of the two to succeed because they have the sworn testimony of an AT&T whistle-blower who disclosed documents about the back door.

The US Government, on the other hand, is being sued by an Islamic foundation, which was mistakenly provided documents by the government that they had been under secret, illegal surveillance. This case takes the issue of government secrecy vs. transparency head on and is thus the more difficult case to win. Case in point: the documents provided to the charity were then reclaimed by the government and are now classified, meaning they cannot be used as evidence in the suit. This, of course, is the problem with any case challenging the surveillance program: all the evidence is classified. Convenient, no?

Here's why these cases are important: the NSA wiretapping program must be scaled back, or at least put under judicial oversight. (It is not. See here.) You cannot protect freedom by taking those freedoms away. I understand the need for a rigorous defense against terrorism and I that 9/11 was a terrible, terrible event. But you have to realize that in a free society, bad things are going to happen. They have to happen, just to prove that we really are free to make choices, even if those choices are whether or not to follow the law. No matter how many laws the government passes people will always break them, even if our cities are completely covered by closed-circuit television. (Like London. And is London crime-free? Of course not!)

Does this mean that we shouldn't try to prevent terrorism within our own borders? No, obviously not. The government should be working day and night to find and arrest terrorists (especially the home-grown terrorists). But we cannot sacrifice what America means in order to protect it. What good is fighting for freedom if we aren't even free?

I know it is hard to swallow the idea that we should expect and accept that there will be terrorist attacks on US soil in the future. But really, is it worth giving up your freedoms, inch by inch, to save a few thousand lives? In my opinion it is not. We risk our lives every day by living in a free society. Instead of wasting effort attempting to take away liberty at home we should be focusing on more effective, and less abrasive, foreign policy. The way to prevent terrorism isn't to listen to every call, read every email and record every website Americans visit. The way to prevent terrorism is work for, and create, a positive world; to make America a beloved member of the world community, a friend of the Muslim world; to reinstate a peaceful, humanitarian America. That way, fewer people will have any reason to kill Americans and we can live safely in a free country.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

'Stampeded by fearmongering and deception' - Dems cave on illegal eavesdropping.

Why? Why?

Fear is such an effective tool. Just throw a tiny bit of fear into the air and suddenly the debate automatically becomes Manichean: "You are either with us or against us." You are either with Bush or soft on terror. Apparently there is no such thing as watching out for Americans' privacy or protecting us from governmental abuse.

Honestly, I am disappointed in the Democrats. When they backed down on the war spending bill I could understand, at least partially. It was difficult to stand up to Bush by refusing to fund the troops because the Democrats were fighting uphill against potent rhetoric ("You don't care about the troops" yada yada). But when it comes to FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, oft used to justify illegal wiretapping), the Democrats had strong, legitimate reasons to stand and fight. But once the Republicans turned their fear mongering up to high it was all over.

Ever since 9/11 the Bush administration has been complaining that FISA is out of date and inadequate for the digital age. As a result, Congress has revised the law 8 times. The administration was fairly quiet during these revisions, neither praising nor berating the Republican Congress. But of course, now that the Democrats control Congress, it is prime time for the administration to bring FISA to the forefront and blame the Democrats for the fact that it isn't up to date.

This whole Republican push reeks of politics (obviously), not of concern for the American public. Why not begin FISA debate in January, and spend the next 6 or 7 months coming up with a satisfactory revision? Nah, that wouldn't be damaging enough to the Democrats. Instead, the administration saved the debate for the end of the congressional session and put Congress's back up against the wall. Allegedly, the administration came to a compromise with the Democrats on Thursday, but then pounced with new demands, withdrawing their original near-agreement (while the congressional session was scheduled to end the next day, Friday, leaving no time to renegotiate). "I think the White House didn't want to take 'yes' for an answer from the Democrats," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), an intelligence committee member. Thus, the Democrats had no compromise bill to bring to the floor, failed to get the two-thirds majority to end debate on their own, much narrower, FISA revision, and were faced with a dilemma: to go home without a new FISA law and look "weak on terror", or to capitulate to the administration and pass all of their demands without any compromise.

You can guess what happened: the Democrats bowed to the pressure. They were "stampeded by fearmongering (sic) and deception" into voting for the bill, said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). How weak; aren't the Democrats supposed to be in the majority?

I understand the need for increased surveillance in order to combat terror, though I do believe the extent of the threat is overblown for political gain. I agree that the National Security Administration (NSA) needs an updated FISA in order to effectively combat high-tech terrorism. But what I do not agree with is the Bush administration's belief that none of this should be done under court supervision. They just want to be handed absolute authority over wiretapping and eavesdropping and circumvent the court of law to make the process more expedient. The new FISA bill give Attorney General Gonzales (the most trustworthy man in the administration, by far) and the director of national intelligence the power to authorize surveillance of essentially anything or anybody, whether they are an American citizen or not, without having to consult a judge. "In place of a court's approval -- which intelligence officials worried might come too slowly -- the NSA would institute a system of internal bureaucratic controls" (The Washington Post).

"What?!" you cry, finally understanding that the Bush administration is claiming to be above the law. Exactly! The administration wants us to trust that they will follow the law, without any real, tangible accountability to the law. "White House officials have repeatedly argued that the president has broad authority to carry out such programs without explicit permission from Congress, even if the programs appear to violate long-standing legal restrictions" (New York Times). And imagine, we actually elected these people to make and uphold "legal restrictions."

Are you angry yet?

House Passes Changes in Eavesdropping Program - New York Times
House Approves Wiretap Measure - The Washington Post

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Minneapolis Freeway Bridge Collapses Into River

Photo via the New York Times

Wow... An entire bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River near Minneapolis. Several cars and a truck reportedly fell into the water as well.

Freeway Bridge Collapses Into River in Minneapolis - New York Times

UPDATE: The NYT posted this video of the bridge collapsing. The video is from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Who said...

"We can't get into this partisan bickering. The fact is that Republicans and Democrats have the same objectives. They get very angry at us and we get very angry at them. Somehow we have to put that anger aside. Democrats are loyal Americans. Republicans are loyal Americans. I think we have better answers, but we have to respect each other."

...Rudy Giuliani? Really?

Of course, that was 10 months ago. Now that he is a presidential candidate, he has gone back to his attack-dog ways, like calling Edwards and Obama losers, for instance.

(via Slate Magazine)