Tag: civil libertarians

The Sun Never Sets on the PATRIOT Act

A year ago, the protracted wrangling in Congress over the re-authorization of several expiring provisions of the PATRIOT ACT made plenty of headlines. Most observers expected the sunsetting powers to be extended, but civil libertarians hoped serious and sorely needed reforms might be part of the package. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held multiple hearings on the topic, and an array of competing reform and reauthorization bills (PDF) were proposed, adding extra safeguards (of varying stringency) to the greatly expanded surveillance powers Congress had approved in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

But Congress had a full plate, and so it punted—approving a straight one-year reauthorization without any modifications at the last minute. (You’d be forgiven for not noticing: The extension passed under the heading of the “Medicare Physician Payment Reform Act.”) As I
noted in December, however, the Justice Department has promised Congress that it will voluntarily adopt some of the measures that had been floated in those reform bills—which would be a fine thing in itself, but I worried that the move seemed calculated to reduce the impetus for binding legislation.

Well, I’ve just noticed—quite serendipitously, as there doesn’t appear to have been a whisper in the press—that the new House Intelligence Committee Chair, Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), has introduced yet another one-year extension, which would push the sunset of the expiring provisions back to the end of February 2012. Given the very limited number of days Congress has in session before the current deadline, and the fact that the bill’s Republican sponsor is only seeking another year, I think it’s safe to read this as signaling an agreement across the aisle to put the issue off yet again. (I’ve asked Rogers’s office for a comment and will update this post if I hear back.)

In the absence of a major scandal, though, it’s hard to see why we should expect the incentives facing legislators to be vastly different a year from now. Heck, we’ve had a pretty big scandal involving the misuse of National Security Letter powers, but even right on the heels of the Inspector General’s report documenting those abuses, the mildest reforms proffered last year died on the vine. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I suspect this is how reining in the growth of the surveillance state becomes an item perpetually on next year’s agenda.

Conservatives, Liberals, and the TSA

Libertarians often debate whether conservatives or liberals are more friendly to liberty. We often fall back on the idea that conservatives tend to support economic liberties but not civil liberties, while liberals support civil liberties but not economic liberties – though this old bromide hardly accounts for the economic policies of President Bush or the war-on-drugs-and-terror-and-Iraq policies of President Obama.

Score one for the conservatives in the surging outrage over the Transportation Security Administration’s new policy of body scanners and intimate pat-downs. You gotta figure you’ve gone too far in the violation of civil liberties when you’ve lost Rick Santorum, George Will, Kathleen Parker, and Charles Krauthammer. (Gene Healy points out that conservatives are reaping what they sowed.)

Meanwhile, where are the liberals outraged at this government intrusiveness? Where is Paul Krugman? Where is Arianna? Where is Frank Rich? Where is the New Republic? Oh sure, civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald have criticized TSA excesses. But mainstream liberals have rallied around the Department of Homeland Security and its naked pictures: Dana Milbank channels John (“phantoms of lost liberty”) Ashcroft: “Republicans are providing the comfort [to our enemies]. They are objecting loudly to new airport security measures.” Ruth Marcus: “Don’t touch my junk? Grow up, America.” Eugene Robinson: “Be patient with the TSA.” Amitai Etzioni in the New Republic: “In defense of the ‘virtual strip-search.’” And finally, the editors of the New York Times: ”attacks are purely partisan and ideological.”

Could this just be a matter of viewing everything through a partisan lens? Liberals rally around the DHS of President Obama and Secretary Napolitano, while conservatives criticize it? Maybe. And although Slate refers to the opponents of body-scanning as “paranoid zealots,” that term would certainly seem to apply to apply to Mark Ames and Yasha Levine of the Nation, who stomp their feet, get red in the face, and declare every privacy advocate from John Tyner (“don’t touch my junk”) on to be “astroturf” tools of “Washington Lobbyists and Koch-Funded Libertarians.” (Glenn Greenwald took the article apart line by line.)

Most Americans want to be protected from terrorism and also to avoid unnecessary intrusions on liberty, privacy, and commerce. Security issues can be complex. A case can be made for the TSA’s new procedures. But it’s striking to see how many conservatives think the TSA has gone too far, and how dismissive – even contemptuous – liberals are of rising concerns about liberty and privacy.

Obama, Civil Liberties, & the Left

A confession: For all my innumerable policy disagreements with Barack Obama, on election night 2008, I found myself cheering with the rest of the throng on U Street. I fully expected to be appalled by much of his agenda – but I had also spent years covering the Bush administration’s relentless arrogation of power to the executive in the name of the War on Terror, its glib invocation of “national security” to squelch the least gesture toward transparency or accountability, its easy contempt for civil liberties and the rule of law. However fitfully, I thought, we could finally hope to see that appalling legacy reversed. And that seemed worth celebrating even if little else about the declared Obama agenda was.

As you might guess, I had a lot of disappointment coming – and not just with Obama.  There were, of course, principled civil libertarians on the left, like Salon’s Glenn Greenwald and Firedoglake’s Marcy Wheeler who kept banging the drum with undiminished fury. But many progressives seemed prepared to assume that Bush’s War-on-Terror policies would be out the door close on the heels of their author – conspicuously muting their outrage even as the reasons for it persisted. Meanwhile, the right – disappointingly if not entirely surprisingly – managed to fuse a penchant for breathless Stalin analogies with an attitude toward expansive surveillance powers and arbitrary detention authority that ranged from indifference to endorsement.

So it’s a little encouraging to see evidence over the last few weeks that burgeoning progressive disenchantment with Obama along a number of dimensions seems to be bringing these issues back into sharper focus. In a recent interview in Der Spiegel, Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame (described by the paper as a “lefty icon”) blasted Obama for “continuing the worst of the Bush administration in terms of civil liberties.” ACLU director Anthony Romero declared himself “disgusted” with the president, and Kevin Drum of Mother Jones catalogued a slew of reasons to agree with that appraisal. The real test of an issue’s salience, however, is whether it makes The Daily Show, and so perhaps the most significant bellwether is Jon Stewart’s decision to devote an unusually long and blistering segment to Obama’s failure to live up to his rhetoric on civil liberties and executive power:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Respect My Authoritah
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Democrats have spent most of the past decade playing defense against “soft on national security” attacks from the right, on the assumption – borne out thus far – that the base wasn’t going to punish them for folding on civil liberties issues. But while many progressive complaints now being aired are themselves the product of an unrealistic view of presidential puissance, this really is one sphere where the president has enormous latitude to unilaterally affect policy. It’s therefore also a set of issues where scant progress can’t easily be blamed on Republican obstructionism.

During the Bush era, we saw the brief emergence of a small but hardy left-right “strange bedfellows” coalition opposed to the FISA Amendments Act. Now I find myself wondering: If progressive grumblings on this front continue and grow louder, will the Tea Party movement that’s sprung up in the intervening years realize that their own rhetoric logically commits them to the same position? And if they do, will civil libertarians on the left be open to resurrecting that odd alliance?

Rand Paul and Me in the Wall Street Journal

I’ve gotten some questions about these paragraphs in today’s Wall Street Journal (slightly shorter in the print version):

David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, said that in many ways Americans are freer now than they were in any pre-1937 libertarian Halcyon day. Women and black citizens can vote, work and own property. “Micro-regulations” that existed before the Supreme Court shift, which controlled trucking, civil aviation and other private pursuits, are gone.

“Sometimes he talks the way libertarians talk in political seminars,” Mr. Boaz said of Mr. Paul. “There are not really many people who want to reverse Wickard, but there are many professors who could make a good case for it.”

Whenever a reporter takes a few sentences from an interview, some context is going to be lost. These quotations are accurate, but let me add some context. For a discussion of my view that we have not in fact followed a road to serfdom from a libertarian golden age, check out these blog posts and articles, as well as my book The Politics of Freedom.

When I said that Rand Paul “talks the way libertarians talk in political seminars” – and I should have said “philosophy seminars” – I was trying to make a distinction between the kinds of ideas that are commonly debated in classrooms and think tank seminars and those that are relevant to any particular political campaign. And my statement that there aren’t “many people who want to reverse Wickard” was in the context of a discussion about the tens of millions of Americans who believe in less government and more freedom, as noted here and here and here and, classically, here. I made the point that there were two great libertarian shifts in American politics and culture in my lifetime, the cultural/civil rights/women’s revolution of the Sixties and the entrepreneurial/economic/taxcutting revolution of the Eighties, and few people want to return either to the cultural strictures of the 1950s or the tax rates of the 1970s.  And in that sense there’s a broadly libertarian center in American politics, and some of those people reacted against the excessive social conservatism (not to mention the over-spending and the endless wars) of the Bush Republicans in 2008, and are now reacting against the excessive statism of the Obama administration. But of course they’re not all as libertarian as I am, and not many normal people would recognize the term “Wickard v. Filburn,” much less call for its reversal. (On the other hand, pollsters should try asking voters, “Do you think the federal government should be able to tell a farmer what crops he can grow on his own farm for his own use?” I’ll bet more people would side with Rand Paul than with, say, the New York Times.) When Rand Paul gets back to talking about bailouts, deficits, debt, and Obamacare, he’s going to be appealing to many of those voters. And if his opponent accuses him of supporting medical marijuana, he’ll find that 81 percent of Americans agree. Sixty percent of Americans oppose federal mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, as Rand Paul does. Paul has every likelihood of appealing to a broad swath of Americans who are broadly libertarian.

State Secrets, Courts, and NSA’s Illegal Wiretapping

As Tim Lynch notes, Judge Vaughn Walker has ruled in favor of the now-defunct Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation—unique among the many litigants who have tried to challenge the Bush-era program of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency because they actually had evidence, in the form of a document accidentally delivered to foundation lawyers by the government itself, that their personnel had been targeted for eavesdropping.

Other efforts to get a court to review the program’s legality had been caught in a kind of catch-22: Plaintiffs who merely feared that their calls might be subject to NSA filtering and interception lacked standing to sue, because they couldn’t show a specific, concrete injury resulting from the program.

But, of course, information about exactly who has been wiretapped is a closely guarded state secret. So closely guarded, in fact, that the Justice Department was able to force the return of the document that exposed the wiretapping of Al-Haramain, and then get it barred from the court’s consideration as a “secret” even after it had been disclosed. (Contrast, incidentally, the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on individual privacy rights, which often denies any legitimate expectation of privacy in information once revealed to a third party.) Al-Haramain finally prevailed because they were ultimately able to assemble evidence from the public record showing they’d been wiretapped, and the government declined to produce anything resembling a warrant for that surveillance.

If you read over the actual opinion, however it may seem a little anticlimactic—as though something is missing. The ruling concludes that there’s prima facie evidence that Al-Haramain and their lawyers were wiretapped, that the government has failed to produce a warrant, and that this violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But of course, there was never any question about that. Not even the most strident apologists for the NSA program denied that it contravened FISA; rather, they offered a series of rationalizations for why the president was entitled to disregard a federal statute.

There was the John Yoo argument that the president essentially becomes omnipotent during wartime, and that if we can shoot Taliban on a foreign battlefield, surely we can wiretap Americans at home if they seem vaguely Taliban-ish. Even under Bush, the Office of Legal Counsel soon backed away from such… creative… lines of argument. Instead, they relied on the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda, claiming it had implicitly created a loophole in the FISA law. It was David Kris, now head of DOJ’s National Security Division, who most decisively blew that one out of the water, concluding that it was “essentially impossible” to sustain the government’s reading of the AUMF.

Yet you’ll note that none of these issues arise in Walker’s opinion, because the DOJ, in effect, refused to play. They resisted the court at every step, insisting that a program discussed at length on the front pages of newspapers for years now was so very secret that no aspect of it could be discussed even in a closed setting. They continued to insist on this in the face of repeated court rulings to the contrary. So while Al-Haramain has prevailed, there’s no ruling on the validity of any of those arguments. That’s why I think Marcy Wheeler is probably correct when she predicts that the government will simply take its lumps and pay damages rather than risk an appeal. For one, while Obama administration has been happy to invoke state secrecy as vigorously as its predecessor, it would obviously be somewhat embarrassing for Obama’s DOJ to parrot Bush’s substantive claims of near-limitless executive power. Perhaps more to the point, though, some of those legal arguments may still be operative in secret OLC memos. The FISA Amendments Act aimed to put the unlawful Bush program under court supervision, and even reasserted FISA’s language establishing it as the “exclusive means” for electronic surveillance, which would seem to drive a final stake in the heart of any argument based on the AUMF. But we ultimately don’t know what legal rationales they still consider operative, and it would surely be awkward to have an appellate court knock the legs out from under some of these secret memoranda.

None of this is to deny that the ruling is a big deal—if nothing else because it suggests that the government does not enjoy total carte blanche to shield lawbreaking from review with broad, bald assertions of privilege. But I also know that civil libertarians had hoped that the courts might be the only path to a more full accounting of—and accountability for—the domestic spying program. If the upshot of this is simply that the government must pay a few tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, it’s hard not to see the victory as something of a disappointment.

‘The End of Privacy’ and the Surveillance-Industrial Complex

National Public Radio’s All Things Considered ran a series on “The End of Privacy” all last week that’s worth a listen. They’re primarily concerned with the ways private companies have access to vast quantities of information about individuals in the digital age—something that civil libertarians have traditionally been less concerned about than government access, for many perfectly valid reasons.  But it’s worth noting how porous that distinction can be.  A 2006 survey by the Government Accountability Office found that just four government agencies—the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security, State Department, and Social Security Administration—spent at least $30 million annually on contracts with information resellers like Choicepoint. The vast majority of that data (91%) was used for law enforcement or counterterror purposes.  And GAO found that the resellers weren’t always in full compliance with the privacy practices that the agencies themselves are supposed to follow.

Choicepoint, coincidentally, is one of the largest clients of the consulting firm run by former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Little wonder given the amount of cash at stake: As reporter Tim Shorrock has documented, some 70 percent of our vast intelligence budget is channeled through private-sector contractors, which means that we need to understand government surveillance policy in the context of a “surveillance-industrial complex” that parallels the more familiar military-industrial complex known for bringing us $600 toilet seats and other forms of pork in camo gear. It’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not just investigatory zeal and public fear driving the expansion of the surveillance state—a lot of people are making a lot of money off it as well.

Civil Liberties and President Barack W. Bush?

It’s fair to say that civil liberties and limited government were not high on President George W. Bush’s priorities list.  Indeed, they probably weren’t even on the list.  Candidate Barack Obama promised “change” when he took office, and change we have gotten.  The name of the president is different.

Alas, the policies are much the same.  While it is true that President Obama has not made the same claims of unreviewable monarchical power for the chief executive–an important distinction–he has continued to sacrifice civil liberties for dubious security gains.

Reports the New York Times:

Civil libertarians recently accused President Obama of acting like former President George W. Bush, citing reports about Mr. Obama’s plans to detain terrorism suspects without trials on domestic soil after he closes the Guantánamo prison.

It was only the latest instance in which critics have argued that Mr. Obama has failed to live up to his campaign pledge “to restore our Constitution and the rule of law” and raised a pointed question: Has he, on issues related to fighting terrorism, turned out to be little different from his predecessor?

The answer depends on what it means to act like Mr. Bush.

As they move toward completing a review of their options for dealing with the detainees, Obama administration officials insist that there is a fundamental difference between Mr. Bush’s approach and theirs. While Mr. Bush claimed to wield sweeping powers as commander in chief that allowed him to bypass legal constraints when fighting terrorism, they say, Mr. Obama respects checks and balances by relying on — and obeying — Congressional statutes.

“While the administration is considering a series of options, a range of options, none relies on legal theories that we have the inherent authority to detain people,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said this week in response to questions about the preventive detention report. “And this will not be pursued in that manner.”

But Mr. Obama’s critics say that whether statutory authorization exists for his counterterrorism policies is just a legalistic point. The core problem with Mr. Bush’s approach, they argue, was that it trammeled individual rights. And they say Mr. Obama’s policies have not changed that.

“President Obama may mouth very different rhetoric,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “He may have a more complicated process with members of Congress. But in the end, there is no substantive break from the policies of the Bush administration.”

The primary beneficiaries of constitutional liberties are not terrorist suspects, but the rest of us.  The necessary trade-offs are not always easy, but the president and legislators must never forget that it is a free society they are supposed to be defending.