NSA

Privacy Is Not Partisan

A close House vote reveals wide opposition to indiscriminate surveillance.

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"This is not a game," Mike Rogers angrily warned last week, urging his colleagues in the House to vote against an amendment that would have banned the mass collection of telephone records by the National Security Agency (NSA). "This is real. It will have real consequences."

I hope Rogers is right. Despite the Michigan Republican's best efforts to portray the amendment as a terrifying threat to national security, it failed by a surprisingly narrow margin that could signal the emergence of a bipartisan coalition willing to defend civil liberties against the compromises supported by leaders of both parties.

Rogers was not surprised by the recent revelation that the NSA routinely collects information about every phone call Americans make, just in case it may prove useful in the future. As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he knew about the program for years, and he had no problem with it.

Not so two other Michigan congressmen: Justin Amash, a 33-year-old libertarian Republican serving his second term, and John Conyers, an 84-year-old progressive Democrat first elected in 1965. These two legislators, conventionally viewed as occupying opposite ends of the political spectrum, were outraged by the NSA's data dragnet, especially since representatives of the Bush and Obama administrations had repeatedly denied that any such program existed.

The measure that Amash and Conyers proposed as an amendment to a military spending bill would have required that records demanded under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which authorizes secret court orders seeking "any tangible things" deemed "relevant" to a terrorism investigation, be connected to particular targets. Although it was a pretty mild reform, leaving in place the wide powers granted by Section 215 while repudiating the Obama administration's even broader, heretofore secret interpretation of that provision, the amendment was viewed as a quixotic effort.

President Obama was against it, of course. "In light of the recent unauthorized disclosures," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, "the President has said that he welcomes a debate about how best to simultaneously safeguard both our national security and the privacy of our citizens." In other words, Obama never wanted you to find out about the NSA's snooping on millions of law-abiding Americans, but now that you know, he is willing to let you talk about it—as long as talk does not lead to action.

Carney condemned the Amash Amendment as a "blunt approach" that "is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process." That was pretty funny, since Obama has been doing everything in his power to prevent ordinary Americans from learning enough about the government's surveillance programs to decide for themselves whether they want to exchange their privacy for his promise of safety. 

The leaders of the House's Republican majority and Democratic minority nevertheless sided with the president. Then something pretty amazing happened: The rank and file failed to fall in line. The amendment was defeated, but by a vote so close—217 to 205—that barely more than a handful of switches would have put it over the top.

Ninety-four Republicans and 111 Democrats defied their leadership. Privacy activists were astounded. Sina Khanifar of DefundtheNSA.com told The Washington Post, "People were like, 'I think we'll get 150 votes if it goes really well.'"

It surely helped that Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a lead author of the PATRIOT Act, told his colleagues Section 215 was not meant to authorize the indiscriminate collection of information about innocent people. But several legislators went even further, arguing that the government should have a warrant based on probable cause to obtain records held by third parties, which the Supreme Court has said is not necessary because people should realize any information they share with others is fair game for government perusal.

"What began on the political fringes only a week ago has built a momentum that even critics say may be unstoppable," The New York Times reported on Monday. Perhaps it is time to redefine the fringes.

NEXT: Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan on the Rise

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  1. John Conyers: Even a broken clock…

    1. I always thought he had been set wrong. Now it turns out he was just every so slightly slow.

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  2. Okay, once again, it is totally irrelevant whether or not the spying is necessary to protect us. It may very well be. However, the law of the land, the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Fourth Amendment prohibits it.

    There is a mechanism to make it legal. There is a path to allow state agents to do this. Until then, it is criminal.

    1. I think the current mechanism is FYTW.. for everything the government does.

    2. Well said.

      Just for lulz, can anyone cite the first instance of The Supreme Law of The Land being, um, bypassed?

      1. I don’t remember the date but it was during Washington’s first administration.

        1. I would have guessed the Alien and Sedition Acts, but you’re probably right. There was that pesky Whiskey Rebellion.

      2. Considering that the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, and did so under sketchy circumstances, the very passage of the Supreme Law of the Land may have been a bypass of the then-current Supreme Law of the Land.

    3. This is the argument that should be used right now.

      But I wouldn’t even give them that spying may be necessary. It clearly is not. The odds of an individual dying in a terrorist attack are ridiculously small. Even if not spying doubled those odds they would still be ridiculously small. And any increased risk from not spying could be offset by ending our overseas adventurism. Don’t give them an inch on this, FoE. They will take a mile.

      1. We have yet to see this data used for anything except investigating crimes after the fact. I deal with data every day – I do not believe that this volume of data will yield anything until after-the-fact. That and snooping on political enemies.

    4. It’s like I always reply to the law and order types, it may be easier to fight crime by installing cameras in everyone’s home to be monitored by the police, but that doesn’t make it legal. We have these restrictions on government actions for a reason.

      1. When the so-called “common sense” gun regulations failed back in April, Obama took to the Rose Garden to wail something to the effect of, “If this ‘common-sense’ regulation can save the life of even one child, don’t we have the obligation to try it?”

        To which my immediate thought was, “If rounding children up and putting them in concentration camps to keep them away from irresponsible adults can save the life of even one child, don’t we have an obligation to try it?”

        I shouldn’t give the fuckers ideas.

        1. You must not have gone to public school

  3. There is a PS professor who tracks the right/leftyness of politicians based solely on who they vote with/against, no looking at details of bill.

    He only uses one axis. Prior to civil war (his work is historical), he needed two, because slavery issues broke the standard right/left continuum.

    Im wondering how close we are to needing two again. Will issues like this remain with a bunch of cross-aisle coalitions?

    I may need to find his stuff again and see if anything is changing with it.

    1. Could be that the country gradually became more homogenous after the Civil War. The only divide left was the Blue/Red divide. Since the WoT started it looks like a new authority/individual divide has started to form. But it will take another generation before we know if it is here to stay.

      1. The 2nd dimension was important in the Amash vote, but he points out that its mostly extremes against the middle.

        The extreme dems and the extreme reps voted for Amash amendment, the middles voted against.

        1. Both the Patriot Act extension and FISA extension votes are showing a similar (but less extreme) 2nd dimensional voting pattern as with the Amash vote.

        2. It’s so sad that having a consistent set of principles, be them right or left, sets one up as “Extreme” vs. the mushy centrists.

          1. The willingness to bargain away your constituents’ freedom and wealth makes you “reasonable” and “moderate”.

            1. No, it makes you Scott Brown.

          2. Sad, perhaps. But, not surprising. Genuine leftists (not Team Blue partisan hacks) and genuine conservatives (not Team Red partisan hacks) do have a set of principles and ideas that guide their positions. It’s not really out of the realm of possibility that those underlying principles might converge from time to time. On the other hand, “moderate” or “centrist” is often just short-hand for “not giving much thought or concern for any underlying principles”.

    2. voteview.com

      And there is some interesting stuff on Amash amendment on the blog.

    3. Don’t we have one – the Nolan chart?

    4. There is only one REAL division in a democratic government that people should care about: between the statists and the libertarians. Statism is supported by the “middle” swath of both major parties in America; libertarianism is on the “edges”. Libertarianism is usually the weaker of the two since the statists can use fear of the Other to scare the populace and the waverers into line. Only when statism goes too far do the libertarians enjoy victories.

      Everything else being fought over is fluff. No party has a monopoly on “freedom” or “liberty” or any of that other rhetorical BS. Democrats do things that are offensive to individual rights; so do Republicans. The sooner people realize that, the better.

  4. Privacy may not be partisan, but security is certainly for courtesans!

    1. Clever, Jimmy. However, why go with the plural courtesans when using the singular would have better fit the rhyming pattern?

      1. because…pre-coffee!

        1. oh and who is jimmy? I am not gojira if that is what you are suggesting.

  5. Privacy has been bitterly partisan since at least Griswold, and will remain so.

  6. What happened to the right to privacy supposedly enshrined in the Constitution?

    1. Served its purpose in getting contraception and abortion legalized.

  7. Part of the problem is the propaganda poured into the public school pupil peeps by the public school pedagogues.

    Example: it is the responsibility of the federal government to protect us from bad bogeymen. Of course, the clover’s corollary to this falsehood is that he has a right to be protected and feel safe.

    Some will point to the federal constitution as obligating the feds to protect us. When pressed, the superficially brighter of clovers will point to Article I, sec. 8, “Congress shall have the power to……………..provide for a common defense….”. Of course, the foregoing language does not obligate the feds to protect any person; to the contrary, all it does is empower congress to confiscate property from the productive in order to feed the military industrial national surveillance parasites.

    Thus, friends of liberty must attack the nutty narrative that government’s job is to protect everybody and that everybody has a right to be protected and feel safe.

    1. The Common Defense Clause, while broad, is greatly limited by the Bill of Rights. Which was the point of the Bill of Rights.

      The unamended Constitution is — to be honest — kind of scary document that provided the government with an enormous amount of broad powers. The only reason the states adopted it was because it came with this package of amendments protecting individuals and limiting the government’s power. Most of which were quickly passed (one of them, oddly, took two centuries to pass).

  8. When the author of PATRIOT Act Section 215, Rep. Sensenbrenner, is saying that it is being used in ways completely OPPOSITE of the way he intended, then you know there’s a problem.

    It’s kind of like the Supreme Court holding that “freedom of press” actually means “the government can place censors in newsrooms” (well, I’m not saying that’s never happened… but at least it’s supposed to be unconstitutional).

  9. “But several legislators went even further, arguing that the government should have a warrant based on probable cause to obtain records held by third parties, which the Supreme Court has said is not necessary because people should realize any information they share with others is fair game for government perusal.”

    This, by far, is one of the scariest things the Supreme Court has EVER held. In today’s world, you MUST trust private third-parties with your information, be it email, cloud storage, etc., or you will get crushed in business (not to mention, how are you supposed to get laid without OKCupid?). So that means everything that used to be protected under the Constitution in the pre-Internet age is suddenly not protected just because it’s a bunch of 0s and 1s sitting on a server somewhere. It’s ludicrous.

    I can only chalk that disgraceful holding on the fact that the old fogies on the Supreme Court know nothing about how the Internet works and how it is used every day by normal people.

    But, seriously, everybody should start using encrypted email and encrypted cloud storage. I have nothing to hide but damn if I want ANYBODY I don’t want to knowing what I’m doing.

  10. In other words, Obama never wanted you to find out about the NSA’s snooping on millions of law-abiding Americans, but now that you know, he is willing to let you talk about it?as long as talk does not lead to action.

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

    1. They aren’t breaking the law… yet!

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