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Archive for December, 2005

Further Thoughts on the Wiretap Scandal

Monday, December 26th, 2005

I’ve been reading and listening to individual reactions to the Wiretap Scandal (which was recently reported to go a lot deeper than the White House initially disclosed). I want to address a particularly dangerous argument that people are trotting out yet again to justify the actions of a government that spies on its own citizens.

If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

This argument has been around for a long, long time and it implies that:

  1. Citizens have no inherent right to privacy
  2. Surveillance only affects the guilty

Addressing the first implication, the closest the United States Constitution comes to identifying a right to privacy is in Amendment IV of the Bill of Rights:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The key idea here is the government needs to have a compelling reason to look into your life and, in order to check abuse, two branches of government (Executive and Judicial) must be involved.

When discussing the Constitution, it is sometimes necessary to remind people of one incredibly important fact – the Constitution does not enumerate what citizens can do, it enumerates what the federal government can do. The Bill of Rights (the first 10 Amendments) specifically addresses some things that the federal government cannot do. What’s more, Amendment X states that any power not specified in the Constitution rests with the States or with the People.

Therefore, from the correct perspective, the question isn’t “Where in the Constitution does it state that citizens have a right to privacy?”, the question is “Where in the Constitution does it state that citizens do not?”

At the heart of our Constitution is the simple idea that people need protection from their own government. It’s an amazing, wonderfully subversive idea that is unfortunately not understood by most Americans. Digressing, I think it would be a very interesting experiment to reword and repackage our own Constitution as a Manifesto written by boogeyman Osama Bin Laden and then gauge public reaction to it.

To the second implication of the “if you have nothing to hide” argument, we all have something to hide. Embarrassing medical conditions, sexual proclivities, unpopular opinions, past lapses in judgement, financial information – all things we would prefer to disclose at our sole discretion. All things that a government with unchecked surveillance powers could disclose to discredit us or, by threat of disclosure, influence us.

The whole reason for checks and balances is because power corrupts. Why even debate the Patriot Act, why have a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court if the Executive branch can bypass laws and procedures at will? If the current president finds certain laws inconvenient, isn’t the solution to go through the process to change the laws, publicly and transparently? You know, like we were a representative democracy?

It is still in our best interests to be very, very careful about the laws we allow, especially when granting additional powers to the government. America’s legal history is littered with laws passed with specific intentions that are subsequently used to justify activities which the laws were never meant to address. The necessity for the careful wording of laws is not unlike the care one should take when making wishes to genies or monkey’s paws. As a recent Onion horoscope advised:

The wheelchair and the indignity will be bad enough, but the worst part is going to be explaining to your wife exactly what you said to the genie to make him take off your legs like that.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (co-author of the seminal 1890 article The Right to Privacy) wrote in his famous Olmstead dissent (related to Elliott Ness and his Untouchables wiretapping bootleggers):

If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.

The precedent we are about to set is incredibly important. If we say that this president is above the law, we are saying that all future presidents are, too. Pick your least favorite politician and then picture hume as president. Are you still okay with the president being above the law?

American Exceptionalism – #3:

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

At the present rate, 1 in 15 Americans will serve time in a federal or state prison in their lifetimes.

It’s Impeachment Time

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

With the sheer volume of reports spewing from mainstream news agencies, blogs (Schneier, The Ape Man) and bearded weirdos on street corners regarding the recent revelation that our President admits with pride and conviction that he authorized (some 30 times) the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens without warrant, you may well ask, “Et tu, MrPikes?”

Yep, and here’s why: There simply isn’t enough outrage. The last one was impeached by the United States Congress for lying about a blowjob. This one is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans, tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanistanis, mismanaging the federal response to a natural disaster, systematically laying the foundation for a police state (USA PATRIOT Act, Real ID, secret prisons, Gitmo, torture), spending the country into massive debt, further eroding the wall between Church and State, committing egregious acts of the worst kinds of cronyism (here, here, and here), and now openly admits to committing repeated criminal violations of Section 1809 of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Section 1809 reads as follows:

(a) Prohibited activities
A person is guilty of an offense if he intentionally—
(1) engages in electronic surveillance under color of law except as authorized by statute; or
(2) discloses or uses information obtained under color of law by electronic surveillance, knowing or having reason to know that the information was obtained through electronic surveillance not authorized by statute.

(b) Defense
It is a defense to a prosecution under subsection (a) of this section that the defendant was a law enforcement or investigative officer engaged in the course of his official duties and the electronic surveillance was authorized by and conducted pursuant to a search warrant or court order of a court of competent jurisdiction.

(c) Penalties
An offense described in this section is punishable by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than five years, or both.

(d) Federal jurisdiction
There is Federal jurisdiction over an offense under this section if the person committing the offense was an officer or employee of the United States at the time the offense was committed.

FISA was specifically put in place in the wake of abuses committed by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the FBI (COINTELPRO). The powers of the oversight body (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) are broadly defined and shadowy as hell, but the entity at least ensures some degree of independent oversight.

The argument put forth by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice for President Bush circumventing the law is that the process was too cumbersome to keep up with today’s go-go terrorists. FISA specifically permits retroactive warrants to be obtained 72 hours after the fact, if an emergency exists. What FISA does not permit are expansive fishing expeditions without probable cause. Incidentally, FISC Judge James Robertson has resigned over this. When the judge of a secretive organization with broad powers resigns because the president has gone too far, it’s time to start paying attention.

President Bush broke the law. Further, he states that he has no intention of stopping. It’s okay though, because he’s the President.

He’s the most serious kind of asshole and he needs to go. Nothing I write here can possibly express how much damage this man has done to this once-great nation’s world stature, or how far his actions have gone to making the United States an even bigger target for terrorist attacks than before.

Enough already. Fire this man. We sort-of elected him *twice*, and we can go a long way to showing the rest of the world that we’ve come to our senses if we take positive action to remove this menace rather than allowing his term simply to peter out. Okay, so we get President Cheney (or what’s left of him) for the next three years. All I can say is that he will be placed so firmly in the category of ‘damaged goods’ as to weaken the Executive branch’s influence to the point of non-existence.

For those who are fearful that such an action will make us more vulnerable because we will be perceived as weak, don’t forget, approximately half of those who participated in the 2000 and 2004 elections voted for this disaster. Demonstrating to the entire world that we will no longer be complicit to this would-be dictator’s destruction of our proud national identity is hardly a weaker position than passively continuing to endorse him.


Friday, December 16th, 2005

My pal Gokmop (who is way more prolific than me) has published an article on Wikipedia about snowclones. “Snowclone” is an Internet meme that can be simply defined as inserting a new word or phrase into an old idiom. For example, substituting the word “laptop” for “dime” in the expression “Brother, can you spare a dime?”, resulting in “Brother, can you spare a laptop?”

“Snowclone” is most often used in a derogatory context, pointing out the laziness of some writers and journalists. The example above probably even made you think of the headline to some pablum that passes for the Fourth Estate these days.

Gokmop’s material always makes for good reading, so check out his article and, if you’re game, contribute to the ever-growing List of Snowclones.

Last, if you’re not already among the converted, do yourself a favor and get to know Wikipedia.

American Exceptionalism – #2:

Friday, December 16th, 2005

We raise fat kids in a culture of fear and consumerism.

American Exceptionalism – #1:

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

We debate over what kinds of torture are acceptable from our shining city upon a hill.

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