Much of the nation, including those of us here at Irregular Times, have taken a break for the last couple days from the bumping, jostling world of public affairs. Now, on December 26, it’s crucial that we get back into the fray. Legislation that will have a dramatic impact on the future of political cuture in the USA is being pushed forward, with the President and members of Congress desperate to pass it before the end of the year,
No, I am not talking about the “Fiscal Cliff”. The idea that there is an absolute end-of-year deadline for dealing with budget matters is an exagerration, an item of propaganda used to create a sense of false urgency. It’s the kind of tool used by salesmen who know that they’re selling an inferior product. They try to convince people that they talk to that the terms they are offering will exist for a “limited time only”, so that potential customers won’t give themselves the time to think crtically or properly research what’s for sale.
I am referring to the vote in the Senate on the renewal of the FISA Amendments Act.
The FISA Amendments Act is a law that retroactively legalized the massive seizure of Americans’ private online information ordered by George W. Bush. The FISA Amendments Act has allowed the creation of a massive system of electronic surveillance that grabs much of Americans’ own online activity: Online calendars, social networks, email, cell phone calls, GPS data, financial transactions and more are being sucked into a giant database, which can be searched not just by federal government spies, but even by local law enforcement officials – your county’s deputy sheriff, for example.
No one knows how extensive the abuses of the FISA Amendments Act really are, because Barack Obama has followed the lead of George W. Bush, and kept most information about the extent of the spying program secret, even from Congress. The very possibility of government electronic surveilance has chilled the hope once felt that the Internet could revitalize citizen participation in American democracy. With private companies like Facebook and Google using new Big Data techniques to integrate Americans’ offline activities into online surveillance systems, the scope of the FISA Amendments Act spying power grows stronger every passing year.
The FISA Amendments Act is in plain violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Fourth Amendment promises that no private information (“papers”, in the archaic language of hundreds of years ago) can be seized by the government without a search warrant designating the specific person and location to be searched, along with evidence, backed by oath, that the person subject to the search is suspected of criminal behavior. Spying under the FISA Amendents Act takes place without any such warrant.
The FISA Amendments Act was supposed to expire years ago, as only a temporary cover for George W. Bush’s illegal spying activities, or as a temporary response to a supposedly vigorous international threat from Al Quaida. The FISA Amendments Act, however, has already been renewed once. This year, the House of Representatives has already voted to approve a bill to extend the FISA Amendments Act for 5 more years – months after Barack Obama completes his second term.
The U.S. Senate will vote on a bill tomorrow that will mirror the action of the U.S. House of Representatives, and allow the Big Brother government electronic spying system to persist for another 5 years. The bill offers no reforms to provide any assurance that Americans’ constitutional rights are being protected.
At Irregular Times, we have written repeatedly this year about the legislation to exend the FISA Amendments Act, as we have written about the law since its earliest consideration, back when Barack Obama, as a first-term senator, broke his promise to vote against the legislation. Barack Obama signed the previous extension of the FISA Amendments Act into law, and has stated that he will also approve the current renewal legislation, if it passes both houses of Congress.
All that has to happen for the unconstitutional abuses of the FISA Amendments Act to go away is for the Senate to fail to pass the extension legislation it will consider tomorrow. Given past votes on the issue, that’s not likely, and there’s not very much that Americans can do at this late hour to stop the bill. The time for citizen action passed long ago, and the citizenry failed to seize the opportunity. Distracted by the dramatic spectacle of the presidential election, Democrats felt reluctant to acknowledge that their own political party’s candidate had a history of support for a profoundly illiberal surveillance law. Rank-and-file Democratic voters swept the issue under the rug, and gave cover to Democrats in Congress to support George W. Bush’s old Homeland Insecurity regime.
While it’s too late now to stop the legislation to renew the FISA Amendments Act, there is one thing that Democratic voters can do to begin to make up for their neglect of this issue: They can pay attention to tomorrow’s vote. They can finally admit that the FISA Amendments Act presents a grave threat to American democracy. They can take note of which senators vote for the bill, and which vote against the bill. They can then spread that information, through their blogs, their social media networks, their email… all the systems that are currently under FISA surveillance. They can organize to replace every Democratic senator who votes in favor of the renewal of the FISA Amendments Act.
Only with such grassroots vigilance can we expect the Democratic Party to take the appropriate position in 2017, the next time the FISA Amendments Act will be considered for renewal. Without such grassroots action, the extraordinary government surveillance of the FISA Amendments Act will come to be regarded by an entire generation as a normal, uncontroversial part of American life.