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The scandalous erosion of US civil liberties

While the US media is focused on the latest political scandal, civil rights in the United States continue to be eroded.
Last modified: 20 May 2013 05:09

This week has been pretty scandal-ridden by Washington standards.  In all, four different stories are taking up all the oxygen on cable TV.  Here's a quick rundown for those who perhaps think it is more important to know what is going on in Syria, Iraq or anywhere where lives, rather than just political capital, are on the line.

First, the Internal Revenue Service, the US tax collecting agency was targeting conservative political groups.   No-one is asking why political groups should be tax exempt, but everyone involved is saying it was a very bad thing for the IRS to specifically target right-wing groups. 

The next so-called scandal has to do with "the Benghazi talking points".  The White House released 100 pages of emails, showing that the State Department, not the White House, pushed to not reveal the fact that they had received intelligence warnings about the security situation in the Libyan city of Benghazi before the attack that killed four US citizens on September 11 last year.  Mention of this was left off the final version, along with any mention of al-Qaeda.  The US media is now focusing on the fact that the change did not come from the White House, instead of asking why officials did not want to admit that they knew about a threat in advance.  In fact, the now-released emails clearly say that the information could "be abused by Members [of Congress] to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings so why do we want to feed that…?" The fact that it was a political consideration is not the scandal: the back and forth political finger-pointing is.

The third issue is that is taking up the US media's time and attention has to do with umbrellas. Specifically, Barack Obama, the US President, had Marines hold umbrellas for him and  Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when it started raining during a joint press conference. That is the complaint by some Republicans. and it has forced liberal media outlets to order their researchers to look for any and all pictures of former leaders having their umbrellas held.

The fourth controversy is the one getting the least amount of attention: in the course of investigating a national security leak, the US Justice Department subpoenaed two months of phone records from 100 Associated Press journalists.  They didn't tell the AP until after they had done it, meaning the respected news organisation could not ask a judge to intervene.  The Attorney General says his department's internal regulations allow them to do that.  That, in fact, is all he'll say. Other than, "It wasn't me."  I'm paraphrasing, but any attempt to ask him questions has been met with the response that he recused himself from the case so he knows nothing.  And no-one else is talking.

These are the "scandals" occupying everyone's time these days.  So the president is going to talk about something this week that has been less controversial: the use of drones in targeted killings overseas. He apparently is going to lay out more details on the internal process, to make Americans understand what he is doing to "keep them safe".  So before he talks, I thought I should lay out what else we know about what his administration practices.

Drones have killed Americans overseas: The government's unmanned aerial vehicles have actually killed thousands of people in several different countries that the US is not at war with.  Those killings are not really controversial here in the US.  The killing of American citizens, however, has gotten some attention.  The US government says Anwar al-Awlaki, a citizen, was plotting against the US; they cite as proof his anti-American videos on YouTube.  Awlaki was killed along with Samir Khan in a drone strike in Yemen.  His 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was killed the same way, allegedly while sitting at an open air café in Yemen.  All three were US citizens, supposedly afforded the extra protection that bestows.  The president is expected to try to explain the legal rationale behind the killings.  We know a little bit about what they are thinking from leaked memos, which say that the executive branch  acting on its own, without oversight, can kill an American if he/she "presents an imminent threat".  It goes on to say that this "does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future".  So, the president might try to explain how imminent doesn't really mean imminent.

There are a couple of other things he might want to talk about while being as he claims "the most transparent [US] president in history".

Here is my likely incomplete list of some of the things the government is now allowed to do, essentially because they say they can.

Indefinitely detain Americans: The president said he wouldn't use this authority, but his lawyers are fighting in court to keep the ability.

'Sneak and Peek': It may sound like a child’s game, but what it means is that government agents can sneak into your house or business without your knowledge, look around take pictures, replace things and they don’t have to tell you until after you are arrested.  It’s believed that these searches are happening mostly in cases that don’t involve terrorism.

Secret warrants: There is a special court that officials can go to and ask for warrants for surveillance inside the US in "terrorism" cases. No one knows who they are targeting but the court very rarely says no to any application.

'National Security letters': Tens of thousands of these letters have been sent demanding companies give the government records on their clients and the companies can’t tell anyone, they just have to give up your information.

Electronic eavesdropping: The government is reportedly trying to come up with a system that would force electronic communications companies to create a backdoor so the government can listen to internet phone calls. 

These are just the things that we know about. What else is the government doing?  It may be much harder now to find out.  The Obama administration's intense targeting of "leakers" will likely mean sources are going to be less likely to talk about what they know.  Would you call the AP with information right now, given the seizure of their phone records?

So what happens next? 

When it comes to drones, Congress would have to force the president to stop because according to the administration's legal memos, they believe this right is based on the law passed after September 11, 2001, authorising the use of force. That authorisation does not have an end date, and is not limited to a certain country.

The courts have, for the most part, sided with the administration on all cases involving civil liberties, but several lawsuits are pending that could force the government to curtail what it is doing - eventually. 

Alternately, the people of the United States could get involved and demand that their rights be protected. It is not, however, an issue that most know about, given that it isn't a big "scandal". The media has not focused on what civil rights groups describe as shocking and illegal behavior. They're busy: it rained and the President was getting wet.