A couple of weeks before Christmas, investigative journalist Julia Angwin uncovered a government program that puts millions of innocent American citizens in the cross-hairs of our executive branch’s massive security apparatus. She described it as a “dragnet.”
The program was just a proposal in in mid-March. Once Attorney General Eric Holder approved the proposal, it became a functioning program.
Prior to Holder’s approval, a nebulous government group called the “National Counterterrorism Center” was prohibited from storing and analyzing any information about American citizens unless there was sufficient evidence of terrorist activity. Now, with the newly approved rules, our government can gather, store, and analyze data on any American citizen, keep it for up to five years, and see if there are “suspicious patterns of behavior.”
What are they sifting through? Whatever they want! This little known agency has access to flight records, the names of American citizens who have hosted international students, the health records of patients at veterans’ hospitals, the financial records of Americans who have applied for federally backed mortgages, and God knows what else. Further, this secretive agency can share this information with foreign governments.
I don’t know where you, the reader, fit into these hit lists. I’m on at least three. Nancy and I have hosted international students from five countries – France, Moldova, China, Vietnam, and South Korea. Over the past six years we’ve racked up lots of frequent flyer miles, including trips to the Middle-East and four former Soviet satellites in Europe. I also include among my friends a citizen of Israel, a Palestinian, and a Pakistani. I even met a cab driver from Afghanistan in Kansas City a few months ago. Every year, like clockwork, I get a physical at a Veterans’ Administration facility. A few months ago I met a friend roaming around the halls at the Eisenhower V.A. Center in Topeka. I wonder if someone in the government catacombs is scouring through our data right now, looking for suspicious activity like eye exams or colonoscopies.
I’d be willing to bet Chris Walker’s presses there are some reading this and thinking, “Dillon is a paranoid right-wing fool. Doesn’t he know that we’re the good guys and that our intentions are always the noblest?” Maybe so. But, if I am paranoid I have at least one left-wing ally, the New York Times’ Bill Keller. Like me, he calls the idea that law-abiding Americans have nothing to fear from government snoopers a myth. In a January 13th op-ed he cites the following from George Washington University professor Daniel Solove: “That’s exactly what Bush said. And it’s also the same thing that any despot says.”
Some of our greatest political saints have done despotic things. Abraham Lincoln suspended the constitutional right to habeas corpus during our Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt had loyal Japanese-American citizens rounded up and placed in detention camps during World War II. Recently, Thomas Drake, an analyst at the National Security Agency, was threatened by the Obama administration with prosecution and imprisonment for up to 30 years under the umbrella of the Espionage Act of 1917, which makes it illegal to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.” What had Drake done that made him so dangerous? He’d become a whistleblower trying to save money being spent on an ineffective government program. When all was said and done his only out was to agree to a lesser charge of misusing a government computer. He was dead broke and lost his job. That’s a very steep price to pay for doing the right thing.
We might be careening over the fiscal cliff in about a month. Given that, the fact that a few government bureaucrats are digging up a bit of dirt might seem unimportant. But I find it very troubling. Poverty is tough; I’ve been there. But, the prospect of government analysts skulking around in my home without my consent is absolutely intolerable. It violates my Fourth Amendment civil right, which guarantees “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Our Founders understood human nature and built a system of checks and balances to protect “the People” from government ambition and tyranny. James Madison put it this way (Federalist 51) – “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
Unfortunately, I doubt that those sifting through the data are thinking about our Bill of Rights. They’re probably too busy digging.
If the Fourth Amendment can’t protect us from this kind of despotism, what can? The best ways to protect ourselves are to turn on the spotlights, scream bloody murder and threaten to vote them out of their tax paid perks! If we do that, they will listen and dismantle this unseemly program.