A forever war and fragile rights


Relax. Yes, the government knows who you call, who you talk to, when, where and for how long. We are filtered through a supercomputer sieve to see if we line up with the latest terrorist profile.

Of course we don’t, so this really isn’t a Big Brother situation. We are just innocent specks among the billions and billions of things the government looks through in its search for enemies and their murderous schemes. It’s all perfectly constitutional and approved by Congress under the USA Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

No big deal, they say. Nothing illegal about it.

And if my sister-in-law in England sends an email asking for a muffin recipe, it’s conceivable they know about that, too, not that they care about muffins.

They are sifting through billions and billions of Internet conversations daily, all that email and Googling and social media conversing the world does. Since a lot of the world’s Internet traffic goes through the United States, the National Security Agency can pick up tiny bits of suspicious stuff, and from there go to some old-fashioned espionage.

Under orders, the big companies like Microsoft and Google help out with this project, in ways they can’t discuss. It is concentrated not on U.S. citizens, but foreigners who lack rights, and supervised by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, its deliberations secret, and cheered on by Congress, mostly in secret. There are checks and balances and “adequate safeguards” and constitutional requirements are strictly followed, in secret. The president of the United States insists the program is “transparent.”

It works well for the intended purpose, to weed out terrorists and foil their plots. It has helped stop more than 50 attacks, said NSA Director Keith Alexander, including many in the United States. So innocent Americans need not fear for their rights as their phone numbers slide through the NSA data mines. They should cheer.

Perfectly legal it all may be, if government submits to its constitutional limits. Polls show most of us don’t have a big problem with this, and that’s the way it usually works. We are innocent, after all, and we appreciate the secret work of our guardians.

Privacy is important, but the phone calls and things aren’t very private anyway, and the president says nobody is reading our emails or texts or tweets or listening in on our iChats and Skypes, and they spy on foreigners, mostly.

Relax? Not yet. The nature of government is to seek power, to overstep bounds, to push beyond the limits. Making that difficult is the very point of the Constitution, which lists our liberties and forbids government to infringe upon them.

The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment allows searches of our private things if government says specifically what it is looking for, demonstrates probable cause and gets permission from the judiciary.

Many say it forbids the blanket search-everything-in-hopes-of-finding-a-crime searches that the NSA now electronically conducts. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit saying the NSA surveillance programs violate our rights under the First and Fourth amendments.

It goes beyond even what the Patriot Act authorizes, to seize records “relevant” to foreign intelligence gathering, not sift through all records in hopes of finding things relevant. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the prime author of the Patriot Act, seems to agree. “I am extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation of the act,” he said.

Liberties are fragile, particularly in war when we are afraid. We sit on the slippery slope. Rights are temporarily disposable, government restraints weaken.

The Patriot Act was passed in October 2001, and by 2003 Congress was debating whether to makes its temporary power permanent. I wrote then: “(Senators say) these new government powers will be necessary as long as there are terrorists. War is often used to justify restraints on liberty. This war, however, has no end. So it is that a fight for liberty becomes a threat to it.”

Tracy Warner can be reached at warner@wenatcheeworld.com


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