The government has records of our phone calls and other transactions?
Please tell me you’re not surprised.
I’ll never forget one election night, in the early 2000s, when Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch cornered me at Republican campaign headquarters and gave me a stern lecture about my opposition to parts of the Patriot Act.
These were the days, post 9/11, when a lot of civil libertarians were upset about Section 215 of the act, which allows the government to obtain approval from a secret court to obtain any of a number of records on American citizens. At the time, people were zeroing in on library records and book purchases, and government officials were saying if you’re not a terrorist, you have nothing to worry about.
Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote, “But when the government has secret, unlimited access to anything you read, any website you surf at the library, it creates the sense that we are all being watched.”
The attorney general at the time, John Ashcroft, was the center of this criticism, especially from the left.
I had written editorials urging the nation not to give up liberties in the name of security, and that parts of the Patriot Act should be repealed. Hatch vehemently disagreed. He wrote an op-ed in 2003 saying the act included plenty of safeguards for the rights of Americans. Of the critics, he said, “ none of them has cited one instance of abuse against our constitutional rights ”
Four years later a Justice Department audit found that FBI officials had issued 39,000 security letters in 2003, despite telling Congress the number was much lower. Security letters are administrative subpoenas to require telephone companies, Internet service providers, financial institutions, credit bureaus and other businesses to produce personal records about their customers.
The audit also found evidence of at least 700 “exigent letters,” signed by FBI officials not authorized to sign the letters, ordering telephone companies to give up billing records and subscriber information.
These sounded like giant fishing expeditions.
Now we learn that with a new president and a new attorney general — both from the opposite end of the political spectrum than those in power in 2003 — nothing has changed.
We are assured that no one in Washington (or soon to be in Bluffdale, Utah, where the world’s largest government data-gathering complex is under construction) is listening to what we say on the phone. They’re just massaging numbers to see if they spot any suspicious patterns.
It’s the same old “trust us” song and dance we’ve heard from the beginning. And yet we now have learned that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that secret tribunal set up to protect our civil liberties and consider all request for data-gathering, has not denied a single request in four years.
It’s important to step back a bit and view this from the point of view of government officials. If you’re elected president, or as a member of Congress, national security is among your biggest concerns. No president wants to be found unaware of a plot to destroy Americans or attack national interests. The tendency will be to use any power at your disposal, even ones that bend the rules a bit, to ensure that safety.
That’s understandable. There is even a bit of comfort in that. The world is dangerous.
The problem, however, is every tinhorn dictator in history has used the need for public safety as an excuse to gather more power and collect more information, and the rhetoric here sounds so similar you feel like someone is reading George Orwell aloud.
The Bush and Obama administrations may be honest in their intent, with 9/11 still fairly fresh in everyone’s mind. But this is such a dangerous road to travel precisely because, if it becomes engrained in our national way of life, it can easily be used for nefarious purposes some day.
That day may not be so distant, actually.
This conversation is underway at the same time the nation is examining how the IRS could use its powers to intimidate people with a certain political view into silence. As long as mere mortals remain in charge, the two issues are not unrelated in principle.