Surrendering the Bill of Rights in the 21st Century

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Three stories I read today shared a common thread: the slow, but ubiquitous degradation of some fundamental freedoms in name of the modern police state. It began with a post over on bOINGbOING about police in America seizing citizens’ property for “suspected” involvement in narcotics trafficking. Cory Doctorow writes:

The story…revolves around the notorious town of Tenaha, TX, a small town on US 59 where a corrupt system allowed cops to pull over people — mostly brown people — and simply take away all their possessions: their cars, their cash, even the gold crosses around their necks.

I first ran across this issue on an episode of The Good Wife (of all places), and the type of search highlighted by the episode was given greater publicity when the Supreme Court ruled on a similar case earlier this year. It touches on a number of issues, but the story discussed by bOINGbOING is very much about the immoral seizure of property:

In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.

If you’re driving down the road in one of these communities and get pulled over (for speeding or driving “too close to the white line” or whatever), and you’re black or brown, there’s a decent chance the police will attempt to confiscate your valuables:

Patterns began to emerge. Nearly all the targets had been pulled over for routine traffic stops. Many drove rental cars and came from out of state. None appeared to have been issued tickets. And the targets were disproportionately black or Latino. A finding of discrimination could bring judicial scrutiny. “It was a highway-piracy operation,” Guillory said.

It was after reading this story that I happened across Charles Pierce:

Almost all of the extra-constitutional atrocities attributed to the “war” on terror have their philosophical — and, in many cases, their literal — roots in the equally futile “war” on drugs. It was there where the Fourth and Fifth Amendments first took a beating similar to the one that Edward Snowden revealed they are currently enduring on the part of the NSA.

MARC CommutersThus, story No. 2: if you hadn’t heard the news, the Drug Enforcement Agency is “funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.” In and of itself, this is crazy enough, but Pierce makes the necessary connection:

Consider how unremarkable drug-testing without probable cause — which is essentially both an unwarranted search and forcible testimony that might be incriminating — has become. Not even the Major League Baseball Players Association, the most powerful union in the country, can stand up against it any more.

For many of the people profiled in the New Yorker piece voluntarily surrendered their property. They did so because authorities threatened to charge them with felonies, or deportation, or said they would lose their kids. But this voluntary acquiescence to our modern police state is everywhere. Cue story No. 3 about the TSA’s new tactical teams:

The teams, which are typically composed of federal air marshals, explosives experts and baggage inspectors, move through crowds with bomb-sniffing dogs, randomly stop passengers and ask security questions. There is usually a specially trained undercover plainclothes member who monitors crowds for suspicious behavior, said Kimberly F. Thompson, a T.S.A. spokeswoman. Some team members are former members of the military and police forces.

The entire security theater apparatus we’ve established around travel in the United States is incredible. Here’s Digby:

But the effect of this isn’t, in the end, to make little old ladies feel safer by confiscating the 8oz bottle of Geritol in their handbagsIt’s to train citizens to submit to authorities without probable cause. That’s exactly what’s happened in airports, after all. Americans are so docile about it that people in other countries are astonished to see us taking off our shoes and otherwise disrobing at airport security without even being told. (They don’t have to.)

And so here we are, in 2013, going about our daily lives, wrapped in the protection of all our law enforcement personnel and no longer in the protection of the Bill of Rights.

At least some people still care

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Germans, recently privy to news that Europe’s biggest telecommunications firm was illegally wiretapping phone calls, are recalling what life was like when East Germany’s secret police were still around:

Experts say sophisticated modern methods — involving digital data, computers and mobile phones — are a far cry from the days of the Stasi who used steaming devices to open envelopes as well as magnetic microphones and typewriters.

“But there are similarities. There is the same lack of scruples over looking into peoples’ lives — the possibility of obtaining and using the information on people,” said Staadt.

The Stasi ran a notoriously effective network of domestic and foreign agents to quash dissent and guard the Berlin Wall against would-be escapees.

Remember, Sen. John McCain wants to make sure telecom companies here in America are protected from lawsuits regarding their illegal eavesdropping – and he’s ready to keep spying if he’s elected president.

Reuters story via Laura Rozen.

Invasions of Privacy

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Laura Rosen hits on something that’s been bugging me about the passport story too:

Seriously, what am I missing? Isn’t there some bizarre sort of cognitive dissonance going on in seeing the reactions to the two cases? How much more intrusive is it to have federal law enforcement and intelligence scouring ordinary people’s phone records, emails, bank records than a State Department contractor sneak peaking into presidential candidates’ passport files, with the sort of information available in any credit check, and which is prompting a rush of Congressional investigations? Why do ordinary people have no recourse, no remedy, no way to demand accountability for the violation of their privacy, no recourse even to demand that they be notified the government has surveilled their communications and bank records, when the presidential candidates, who have volunteered after all for an extraordinary degree of public scrutiny to become the leader of the free world, get recourse, apologies, Congressional investigations and law suits?

It looks like the House is at least standing up for the letter of the law, if not specifically for civil rights, in its opposition to the Senate version of the RESTORE Act.  Preserving the ability of ordinary citizens to file suit against telecommunications companies that likely broke the law is a big step forward for the House.

Now, if we could only preserve the ability for ordinary citizens to sue drug companies when medications go wrong, we might be getting somewhere.

Martin Heinrich on FISA

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Last year, I wrote a quick post about Martin Heinrich, and alluded to something big his campaign was working on regarding FISA. At the time, I thought it would be breaking pretty soon, but it looks like it popped up earlier this year. It hasn’t seen a lot of play time (though hopefully that will change now that Matt Stoller highlighted the video over at OpenLeft):

Top-tier New Mexico Congressional candidate Martin Heinrich in this video, though, makes a real argument about why FISA happened, and it’s not your standard ‘both parties need to stop bickering’ but a real observation that both parties keep voting for legislation that abrogates our freedoms in very dangerous ways.

Here’s the video:

Why not reward good behavior, and make a donation to the Heinrich campaign, and work to make a True Blue New Mexico.

FISA shenanigans

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The first two paragraphs in Christy Hardin Smith’s latest post on the FISA legislation are chilling:

Yesterday evening, the Progressive Caucus had a closed-door meeting with the Democratic Leadership and the entire Democratic Caucus in the House — Speaker Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Rahm Emanuel, among others. My understanding is that the Progressive Caucus met with Rep. Conyers — who heads the House Judiciary Committee at 6:30 pm ET, and then the whole caucus met with the leadership afterward around 7 pm ET.

The weird thing is that an AP article hit the wires (H/T to TPM for grabbing the wire piece) at 6 pm ET with quotes from Steny Hoyer regarding the possible need to cut a deal with the Bush WH on retroactive immunity for the telecom companies in order to get FISA legislation passed.

Talk about bad timing. There was some more movement on FISA today; for more info, try here and here.

One step forward…

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Ezra Klein, commenting on the recent Kyl-Lieberman amendment, makes this great point:

The Senate’s adoption of the Lieberman/Kyl amendment designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist group” isn’t merely embarrassing, it’s counterproductive. Designating the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group — which in contemporary American terms means they’re a target — makes it all the more important for Iran to keep us tied up and weakened in Iraq. The more we telegraph that we’d like to devote forces to regime change or strikes in Tehran, the stronger Iran’s incentive to keep Iraq an unstable morass trapping ever-greater numbers of American troops who can’t be easily diverted from a chaotic mission and are geographically vulnerable to Iranian counter-attack.

Like I said, Ezra makes a good point, but there’s more to it. Counterproductive describes the GOP agenda for most of the Bush term. For example: North Korea. Bush spent 5 years telling everybody that Clinton was an appeaser for dealing with the North Koreans. Nevermind that they actually halted their nuclear program. Clinton did it = it was bad. So, Bush talked hard, and blustered about, refused to negotiate with one of the Axis of Evil, and North Korea ended up with a handful of nukes.

Then, suddenly this February, diplomacy was pursued, and talks are underway this week to negotiate the transfer of 950,000 tonnes of heavy fuel, after the DPRK halts its nuclear program. In other words, a return to the status quo. Oh, and North Korea now has nuclear weapons. There’s that, I guess.

What about Jose Padilla? Arrested in 2002, he was then held for years while the Bush Administration argued he had no rights to a lawyer or to fight his imprisonment before a trial of his peers. Again, let’s forget the Constitution and Bill of Rights thingies, they don’t apply. It’s not like Padilla was a citizen or anything. According to Bush, he was a threat to national security, and couldn’t be allowed to communicate with an attorney.

Then, suddenly, when the Supreme Court was just about to rule on whether or not Bush could hold Padilla indefinitely, the Administration caved and charged Padilla.

Are we seeing a pattern here?