by Ayesha Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 11, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1436)
The US House of Representatives has secretly passed a new bill that increases state surveillance powers without any court oversight. The US has become a police state.
Last month, a bill quietly made rounds in the US House of Representatives and passed instantaneously: the Intelligence Authorization Act for 2015. While the mainstream media focused on the CIA torture report and the Michael Brown-Eric Garner demonstrations, the December 10 bill was barely noticed, even though it carries grave ramifications for citizens’ rights. The provisions of this bill legalize spying by the chief executive on the communications of every American citizen.
Rep. Justin Amash, a young Tea Party Republican from Michigan, put up a valiant fight against the bill, which was quickly introduced and moved to vote before many members of Congress were even aware of it. Later, in a Facebook post, he said, “[It is] one of the most egregious sections of law I've encountered during my time as a representative: it grants the executive branch virtually unlimited access to the communications of every American.” Amash noted that had he more time, he would have been able to muster the support to quash the bill, which passed 325–100. Representative Zoe Logfren, a California Democrat who voted against the bill, speculated that the bill was introduced by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is currently headed by Dianne Feinstein.
In the letter that Amash circulated to members of Congress in an effort to muster eleventh-hour support, he wrote, “Last night, the Senate passed an amended version of the intelligence reauthorization bill with a new Sec. 309 — one the House never has considered. Sec. 309 authorizes ‘the acquisition, retention, and dissemination’ of nonpublic communications, including those to and from US persons. The section contemplates that those private communications of Americans, obtained without a court order, may be transferred to domestic law enforcement for criminal investigations.”
“To be clear, Sec. 309 provides the first statutory authority for the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of US persons’ private communications obtained without legal process such as a court order or a subpoena. The administration currently may conduct such surveillance under a claim of executive authority, such as E.O. 12333. However, Congress never has approved of using executive authority in that way to capture and use Americans’ private telephone records, electronic communications, or cloud data.”
Amash’s letter makes reference to Executive Order 12333, which was issued by Ronald Reagan in 1981 and later amended by George Bush. While it purports to track “foreign surveillance,” it can target the domestic communications of US citizens in ways that erase the boundaries between “foreign” and “domestic.” In the wake of the Edward Snowden affair, there was a strong current of dissent in the US against obtrusive government surveillance and the erasure of civil liberties. By sneaking in a presidential executive decree legalizing the mass tracking of civilians — from their phone calls, to emails, to their internet usage — the US government shows that the institutionalization of the national security industry has crystallized a police state that has nullified all the constitutional tenets on which the US was founded.
“If this hadn’t been snuck in, I doubt it would have passed,” noted Rep. Zoe Lofgren, referring to the stealth move to pass Sec 309. “A lot of members were not even aware that this new provision had been inserted last-minute. Had we been given an additional day, we may have stopped it.” Lofgren also said the language was “the exact opposite of what the House passed this summer.” According to Dustin Volz, in a December 11 article for the National Journal, “this refer[s] to an amendment she championed that would have required the NSA to obtain a warrant before reading Americans’ private messages that were collected through a program intended to target foreigners.” Lofgren said, “Congress is authorizing something very questionable constitutionally.”
Lofgren suspected that Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, is responsible for the rush move to sneak in and authorize the surveillance law via rush-vote. The coincidence is rather interesting, as Feinstein has been one of the leading figures in Congress vocalizing opposition to the CIA following revelations in Bush-era documents on torture practices that the super-spook agency had been spying on congressional members. The Feinstein-led uproar was loud and vocal, and garnered extensive media coverage. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa called the spying on Congress potential “treason.”
On March 11, 2014, Feinstein took to the Senate floor to accuse the CIA of monitoring the files of Senate computers, with respect to the Senate’s impending report on the CIA torture and waterboarding program under the Bush regime. “I have grave concerns that the CIA’s search may well have violated the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution, including the speech and debate clause. It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities or any other government function. I have asked for an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate. I have received neither.”
However, Feinstein’s concern for constitutional rights and separation of powers did not extend to the massive surveillance apparatus erected to gather, analyze, and collect information against the people. Many commentators have charged Feinstein with hypocrisy — she supports and abets the expansion of the National Security State, but reacts in outraged indignity when the operations of her office fall under scrutiny. Media personality Jon Stewart objected to Feinstein’s staking of the moral high ground, noting on the March 12 (2014) episode of his The Daily Show that she never voted against the draconian national security legislation passed under the Bush and Obama years. The Congress’ position suggested that they are above the law because they collaborate with and confirm the dictates of the National Security State.
Edward Snowden also made some pointed comments about Feinstein’s stand on March 12, 2014. “It’s clear the CIA was trying to play ‘keep away’ with documents relevant to an investigation by their overseers in Congress, and that’s a serious constitutional concern,” said Snowden in a statement to NBC News. “But it’s equally if not more concerning that we’re seeing another ‘Merkel Effect,’ where an elected official does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies, but suddenly it’s a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them.” Snowden referred to Angela Merkel’s outrage on finding out that her phone conversations were being wiretapped by the NSA, even as she failed to speak out against wiretapping and monitoring by the US of the personal communications of German citizens.
The charges seem to bear weight. On December 14, 2014, the Senate’s report spearheaded by Feinstein on illegal CIA practices under the Bush years was released. While the report’s findings are being vigorously aired, vetted, and discussed in the media, the silent passing of Sec. 309 is yet one more nail in the gargantuan coffin in which US constitutional rights are being interred. In the same time frame, on December 14, Congress went ahead and authorized the “CRomnibus,” a $1.1 trillion budget for the US government’s 2015 fiscal year, where the Pentagon has been allotted a whopping $554 billion. Warcraft trumps statecraft every time.
The CRomnibus, within the defense-spending portion of its budget, has also edged out the Massie-Lofgren appropriations amendment, which passed in June as an effort to cut funding for Section 702. This allows the NSA to wiretap phones, collect emails, and browsing history without a search warrant if one of the parties whose communications are being collected is overseas; Reps. Thomas Massie and Zoe Lofgren passed their amendment in June 2014 to cut funding to such “backdoor search” initiatives. However, the CRomnibus fiscal budget has written out that amendment entirely.
The Senate’s CIA report is a step in the right direction, as a way of assessing the futility and brutality of the Bush regime’s War on Terror. However, the rhetorical expressions of emotion, horror, and regret are simply hot air — it is not translating into congressional oversight of constitutional rights of citizens vis-à-vis a militarized state, despite the efforts of some conscientious Congressmen such as Amash, Lofgren, and Massie. It also distracts the public from the here and now, the ramping up of a draconian national security apparatus, including invasive surveillance. Rather, it is an eerie statement that the Congress now takes itself to be above the law, exempt from Big Brother’s gaze that is digitally encompassing the globe.