Legislation proposed and even passed on the federal and state level in the past several years has made it unclear whether or not the people we’ve chosen to represent us in government actually know what it means to govern in a democratic republic.
Since 9/11, individual US citizens have seen their rights slowly stripped away in the name of “fighting terrorism”, “freedom”, “democracy”, “safety”, and “the greater good”. The assault on liberty has only intensified in the past few years, with the added supposed justifications of “stopping piracy”, “taking care of the economy”, and “protecting children”.
The first wave:
- USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (Wikipedia, EFF, Center for National Security Studies, full text from the Library of Congress)
This was a huge increase in governmental powers of intelligence-gathering, financial regulation, and the detaining and deportation of immigrants. It also redefined terrorism to include domestic terrorism, laying the groundwork for the indefinite detention rider to the NDAA (see below). The PATRIOT Act was set to expire a few times, but has always been extended–or provisions that did expire were reborn under other laws.
- Homeland Security Act of 2002 (Wikipedia, PBS, full text at DHS)
This law radically restructured the US government, further threatening individual privacy and paradoxically making gathered information less safe while increasing government secrecy. Here is some analysis from the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. (Note that the TIA portion of HSA was, fortunately, removed.)
- Military Commissions Act of 2006 (Wikipedia, Center for Constitutional Rights)
Allows the US to detain “alien unlawful enemy combatants” indefinitely without trial, to try them in military courts, and to employ torture. This was basically our government’s way of saying they were unhappy with having to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Apparently they liked this power so much they wanted to extend it to US citizens as well; see the NDAA below.
- Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 (Wikipedia; did not become law)
This law would have criminalized such behaviors as sharing one’s opinion on the internet. Think such a thing would never pass? Check out the NDAA and CISPA, below.
The more recent wave:
- The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) of 2011 (plenty of references in my original post; neither became law)
Here we see the government trying to help out their lobbyist friends in the entertainment business. This legislation would have been extraordinarily costly to the taxpayers while doing nothing but applying a band-aid to companies with failing business models. Thankfully, internet outrage got our legislators’ attention, and these bills failed. But the war’s not over; see CISPA, below.
- Section 1021 of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA): Indefinite detention without trial (Wikipedia, ACLU)
The NDAA is, typically, just the military budget. It gets passed and our soldiers get paid. This year, though, there was an insidious rider. So when President Obama signed this particular budget, he was authorizing himself to use the military to detain, indefinitely, without trial, anyone suspected of being a terrorist…US citizens included. And given the Military Commissions Act above, it’s hard not to imagine that there might be some wiggle room for torture. Yes, this is a law right now. In America. A couple of commentary pieces: counterpunch.org, businessinsider.com.
- Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) of 2012 (Wikipedia; currently going through Congress)
This bill would allow spying on anyone’s internet activities without a warrant or justification, simply on the suspicion of cybercrime. It was just passed by the House. As this story is developing, there aren’t a whole lot of authorities on the subject, but here is some news coverage:
- Techdirt: Insanity: CISPA Just Got Way Worse, And Then Passed On Rushed Vote
- Wired: House Passes Controversial Cybersecurity Measure CISPA
- Gizmodo: What is CISPA?
- ZDNet: How SOPA protests were used to push CISPA
- Forbes: The FBI Workaround For Private Companies To Share Information With Law Enforcement Without CISPA
- The Guardian Blog: How the National Security Agency has gone rogue
- The Atlantic: Paranoia About CISPA Is Justified [added 4/28]
We have essentially empowered our government to spy on us, harass us, arrest us and detain us indefinitely without trial…and to thank us, they keep chipping away more and more freedoms. How many of us even know this is happening? How many of us who do know are afraid to say anything, for fear of being targeted by the government?
Do these laws make you feel more secure?
Any law that allows the government to do something to a citizen based on the suspicion that that citizen is engaging in certain activity is a law that can be abused. Have a political enemy? “Suspect” her of terrorism, and get her locked up by the military. Don’t like a certain blogger’s message? “Suspect” him of cybercrime, and enjoy knowing the intelligence community is laying his private life bare.
Why do we have a government, again? Wasn’t it something about taking care of citizens? Let’s see. Here’s part of the preamble to the Bill of Rights, which basically says governmental powers should be limited to make sure people can trust the government:
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.
And from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
It’s hard to look at what our government has done since 9/11 and argue that it has not been destructive to liberty.
What should we do? We need people in our government who truly represent people, not drug companies or entertainment empires or banks or monopolies or other huge businesses. We need legislators who are knowledgeable, who don’t spend all their time fundraising. I outlined some campaign reform ideas in a previous post; I truly think if we could do something like that, we’d be in a much better place than we are now.
Until then, we have to fight every battle as best we can. And that definitely means fighting CISPA right now. Contact your senators and contact the White House; let them know that this further incursion into civil rights and privacy cannot pass.
It also means electing people who understand larger issues, who aren’t simply motivated by the desire for a career in Washington. It’s probably going to be hard to find these people, but we have to try.