U.S. President Barack Obama allows himself to be led by paranoia just as much as George W. Bush. Now civil rights activists are complaining. One can only hope that the judges take up the case. It is not certain.
What a Strong Plea for Human Rights
A short time ago the citizens of the U.S. proudly celebrated their national holiday, in the remembrance of July 4, 1776, when representatives of the 13 colonies declared their independence from the English motherland. In the Declaration of Independence, they formulated what was for that time a new, as well as future-oriented, ideal of freedom: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
But that is long since over. For decades the U.S. has again and again limited rights and freedoms — and put human rights last when it believes that it is necessary for its security.
The Patriot Act Is a Carte Blanche
Much of it happened and happens in secret and would never have come to the light of day if there had been no whistle-blowers: no Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed in his Pentagon Papers how the U.S. government lied to Americans about the Vietnam War in the ‘60s; no Joseph Wilson, who made public shortly after the 2003 Iraq invasion that there was no proof that Saddam Hussein had purchased uranium in Nigeria for a nuclear program; no Edward Snowden, who recently made public the scope of the worldwide monitoring of telephones and the Internet by the U.S. National Security Agency.
Now, it is not exactly new that intelligence agencies in the U.S. and the FBI monitor readily and a lot. FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover already had — often illegally — countless politicians and celebrities wiretapped. He collected this often-delicate information in dossiers that ensured his survival in office for almost 50 years. Critics later went so far as to label his methods a “blueprint for American fascism.”
The excesses of the intelligence agencies and the FBI methods fortunately also had consequences. An investigative committee brought to light in the mid-‘70s how severely the FBI and intelligence agencies had misused their power at home and abroad. As a consequence of these revelations, the investigative committee became a permanent select committee to control the intelligence agencies. In addition, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978, which certainly also applies to U.S. citizens who communicate with someone in a foreign country.
Actually, these measures were progressive in the best sense, because they finally regulated when and how the agencies were permitted to monitor — and required them to get the blessing of the FISA court for their measures. But instead of reining in the surveillance fervor of the FBI and intelligence agencies and better controlling their procedures, the opposite has occurred, especially in the last 12 years. Thanks to the most modern computer technology, the agencies filter communication across the board; thanks to resourceful lawyers, they have a carte blanche in anti-terror laws like the Patriot Act, which allows the massive curtailing of civil rights.
Case in Front of the Supreme Court
The work of the FISA court speaks in mockery of every constitutional idea. It doesn’t only meet secretly — without a representative of the opposite side — but it also does not publish its decisions. One must greatly doubt its control function: In 2012 alone, 1,856 applications for searches, wiretapping actions or Internet surveillance were submitted; not a single one was rejected. The court apparently interprets FISA so freely that almost any measure in the war on terror appears to be justified — toward U.S. citizens, but also toward citizens worldwide.
The New York Times believes that the FISA court has become a sort of second Supreme Court in the last few years, which secretly expands the legal possibilities of the intelligence agencies through its verdicts — without lawmakers knowing about it in detail. In this way, any balance whatsoever in the American legal system has been lost in the trade-off between freedom and security. And the worst of it is that U.S. President Barack Obama, the brilliant constitutional lawyer, allows himself to be led by the same paranoia that drove his predecessor, George W. Bush. Although Obama as a presidential candidate in 2007 rightly assessed the numerous surveillance measures skeptically, as president he continued the programs of his predecessor; in individual cases, his government even granted more leeway.
This Monday, a civil rights group will file a suit in the Supreme Court against the NSA and FISA. Up to now, the court has always rejected similar suits, because plaintiffs like Amnesty International could not prove that their electronic communication was actually affected.
In light of the Snowden disclosures, such a rejection might not be so easy. One can only hope that the judges will take up the case and put an end to the secret war against civil rights. It is perhaps the last chance for the one-time land of freedom.