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Act NOW! On Thursday, Senate Decides Future of Surveillance in America

The Senate Judiciary Committee has quietly scheduled this Thursday at 9:30 am to mark up legislation reauthorizing sections of the Patriot Act for four more years and revising the FISA Amendments Act to boot.

The markup matters, and you should contact your Senators before it happens. Here’s why.

Surveillance Matters
In 1791, Jeremy Bentham described the layout of a building called the Panopticon in which authorities (prison guards, employers, doctors, principals) could see everything that their subjects (prisoners, workers, patients, students) did while their own activities remained hidden. The object of the Panopticon: control for authorities, compliance by subjects.

In the 20th Century, social scientists confirmed what Jeremy Bentham intuited: that people have an unsettling tendency toward conformity and compliance, and that by manipulating the flow of information it is possible to maximize conformity and minimize dissent. The more that authority figures can insert themselves into your personal life, and the more they can hide their own actions, the more likely you are to comply with their explicit orders and implicit expectations, even when your own moral values stand for something different.

Your Government is Watching You
If you don’t want to be a sheep, if you want to live an independent life on your terms, then you should be concerned at news that your government has been watching you. Thanks to the FISA Amendments Act and the USA Patriot Act, the U.S. Government has been violating the letter and the spirit of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is supposed to be the supreme law of the land and which guarantees:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Under the Patriot Act, people can be targeted for surveillance on the basis of their First Amendment expressions of dissent. Once they are targeted, Americans can have their financial records and communications seized without the warrants that the 4th Amendment clearly requires. After the passage of the FISA Amendments Act, the Bush administration AND the Obama administration (no, that’s not a typo) carried out massive spying on Americans’ communications by phone and e-mail, again without constitutional warrants.

Why is your government watching you while it keeps its own activities as secret as possible? Control. Compliance. Your government may insist that it wants control and compliance for the best of reasons, but control and compliance are still the results. If you don’t want to live life like a sheep, then you should be concerned.

Enter the JUSTICE Act
S. 1686, the JUSTICE Act, is a bill that would begin to undo the damage to civil liberty wrought by the USA Patriot ACT and the FISA Amendments Act. It would, if passed:

* Restrict information collected in warrantless National Security Letters to information about the structure of interaction between individuals. Information about the content of interaction could not be collected without a warrant. Current law allows the government to seize the content of your interactions without a warrant.

* Restrict material collected. Those warrantless National Security Letters could only collect information regarding a person who is a suspected agent of a foreign power, a subject of an ongoing national security investigation, or is in some direct contact with either of the two. Current law allows the government to spy on people who know people who know people … (ad infinitum) … who know a suspect, all without a warrant.

* Protect free speech. Under the JUSTICE Act, people could not be made the target of NSLs solely on the basis of political statements made in exercise of free speech. Under current law, people can be put under surveillance because they make unpopular political statements.

* Require specificity in requests. NSLs and electronic surveillance must be specifically targeted and be time-limited in duration. Under current law, they need not be, even though the 4th Amendment to the Constitution declares that they must be.

* Mandate reports to the Congress and the American public about patterns in the use of National Security Letters and electronic surveillance. Current law does not require these reports.

* Introduce the right of some judicial review for the targets of National Security Letters and electronic surveillance and for the corporations and individuals who are told to help the government spy on people without warrants. Current law provides little to no such judicial review.

* Require that information collected in contravention of the law be destroyed. Current law allows illegally collected information to be kept by the government.

* Revoke retroactive immunity for telecommunications corporations that broke the law to give the government Americans’ private information. Current law immunizes corporations that broke the law and violated your privacy.

* Forbid the “bulk collection” of all communication between the United States and the rest of the world, and forbid “reverse targeting:” the surveillance of foreigners in order to spy without warrants on the Americans they communicate with. Under current law, bulk collection and reverse targeting are allowed to occur.


These are just the highlights. To get a fuller idea of the scope of S. 1686, read it for yourself. If you don’t want to live your life like a herded sheep, and if you want your fellow Americans to be afforded their constitutional rights, the JUSTICE Act is a bill worth supporting.

Senate Consideration of Surveillance: Full Stop on Thursday
As I mentioned at the top of this article, this upcoming Thursday morning (just two days from tomorrow morning) the Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting to mark up Senator Patrick Leahy‘s favored bill reauthorizing sections of the Patriot Act for four more years. Leahy’s bill offers some mild revisions to the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act, but is not nearly as broad in scope or strong in effect as S. 1686, the bill introduced by Senator Russell Feingold. Patrick Leahy is the chair of the Judiciary Committee; Russ Feingold is only a member. This means that without the intervention of audible public opinion, Leahy’s tepid bill is more likely to proceed out of committee and Feingold’s stronger bill will be stuck in committee.

This is where you come in. As of today, only 10 Senators have signed on in support of S. 1686:

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) — principal sponsor
Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI)
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM)
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL)
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-VT)
Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT)
Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM)
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)

Only two of those Senators are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. There are NO Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee who have a record of supporting Americans’ fourth amendment liberties, so they cannot be counted on. That leaves the following Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who remain unspoken for, on the fence, and hopefully open to some reform:

Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. DC Office Phone #: 202-224-4524

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. DC Office Phone #: 202-224-3841

Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. DC Office Phone #: 202-224-5641

Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware. DC Office Phone #: 202-224-5042

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. DC Office Phone #: 202-224-3244

Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin. DC Office Phone #: 202-224-5653

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. DC Office Phone #: 202-224-6542

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. DC Office Phone #: 202-224-4254

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. DC Office Phone #: 202-224-2921

If you live in California, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island or Wisconsin, call your Senator listed above and please ask them to do two things:

1. Cosponsor S. 1686, the JUSTICE Act, as a way of showing public support for the strongest FISA and Patriot Act reform legislation before the Senate.

2. Should another bill such as Leahy’s be passed from the Senate Judiciary Committee, attach JUSTICE Act provisions to it in order to make whatever bill makes it out of committee as strong as possible a restoration of Americans’ 4th Amendment rights.

It’ll take you five minutes, and I promise you that once you’ve done it you’ll feel good about it. I’m going to name names. Tom, I know you’ve said you live in Pennsylvania. Can you make the call? J. Clifford, you live in one of these states. Can you make the call? Kevin, ReMarker, qs, and every other person who comments here or reads here: do YOU live in one of these states with a Judiciary Senator? Can YOU make the call?

There are only two days left to take this simple yet vitally important action. Please do what you can. Thanks.

2 comments to Act NOW! On Thursday, Senate Decides Future of Surveillance in America

  • Yes, my message this morning to Charles Schumer’s office at 9:00 AM sharp, will be: First, please cosponsor S. 1686, the Justice Act, by Senator Russ Feingold. Second, please work in the markup session tomorrow for Senator Leahy’s bill, S. 1692, to add the kind of strong civil liberties provisions, that are found in Feingold’s bill.

  • A very busy morning, and it takes a while to get through to Senator Schumer’s office, but the message has been left – and the aide who answered the phone was already aware of the Justice Act. Perhaps that’s a good sign.

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