How Are We Supposed to Know What the Government Does?
You should probably be afraid, at least a little, of the federal government. The reason for this doesn’t have anything to do with conspiracy theories about fluoridation or the Obama administration hoarding ammo to keep it out of the hands of True Patriots. It’s simpler than that: you should be worried about the US government because it is huge and well funded and powerful and, most importantly, you don’t know what it’s doing.
The civics class version of government—that there are three branches, each with its own checks and balances and blah blah blah—is hopelessly outdated. For one thing, the legislative branch is paralyzed by partisanship and a set of rules that make it impossible for it to do anything but stop laws from getting enacted. For another, as documented by the Washington Post in 2010, the governmental agencies that are in charge of “national security” have grown like not-all-that-benign tumors, consuming billions of tax dollars, constructing massive top-secret facilities, and employing hundreds of thousands of people whose job descriptions you don’t have the security clearance to know. The national security state is vast and unknowable, practically its own branch of government at this point, with its own secret history. Millions upon millions of documents are classified, many unnecessarily. By some counts, there are more pages of classified documents in the US than there are unclassified—and the government spends $12 billion a year keeping all that information under wraps.
We did it! Hours ago, a federal judge ordered the FBI to stop issuing spying orders, called national security letters (NSLs), which forced companies to disclose customer data while simultaneously censoring them from discussing the order with the press or public. It’s a landmark ruling that strikes at one of the most domineering powers amplified by the infamous USA PATRIOT Act.
The government will likely file an appeal. But EFF is invigorated by this victory and plans to battle every step of the way. In the words of EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman: “The public has long known that it is inappropriate for the government to hide its questionable NSL practices behind a veil of secrecy. The court has confirmed that.”
We couldn’t have done this without dedicated supporters who join us in challenging injustice and overreach. EFF members are the backbone of our operation—please join us in celebrating this victory by donating to EFF!
With great thanks and pride,
EFF Development Director
A 2011 ACLU report warns that a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the United States is at risk of enshrining a permanent state of emergency in which core values must be subordinated to ever-expanding claims of national security.
The report, entitled, “A Call to Courage: Reclaiming Our Liberties Ten Years after 9/11,” explores how sacrificing America’s values – including justice, individual liberty, and the rule of law – ultimately undermines safety. (Read the full report »)
Everywhere And Forever War
The report begins with an examination of the contention that the U.S. is engaged in a “war on terror” that takes place everywhere and will last forever, and that therefore counterterrorism measures cannot be balanced against any other considerations such as maintaining civil liberties. The report states that the United States has become an international legal outlier in invoking the right to use lethal force and indefinite military detention outside battle zones, and that these policies have hampered the international fight against terrorism by straining relations with allies and handing a propaganda tool to enemies.
A Cancer On Our Legal System
Taking on the legacy of the Bush administration’s torture policy, the report warns that the lack of accountability leaves the door open to future abuses. “Our nation’s official record of this era will show numerous honors to those who authorized torture – including a Presidential Medal of Freedom – and no recognition for those, like the Abu Ghraib whistleblower, who rejected and exposed it,” it notes.
Fracturing Our “More Perfect Union”
The report details how profiling based on race and religion has become commonplace nationwide, with the results of such approaches showing just how wrong and ineffective those practices are. “Targeting the American Muslim community for counterterrorism investigation is counterproductive because it diverts attention and resources that ought to be spent on individuals and violent groups that actually pose a threat,” the report says. “By allowing – and in some cases actively encouraging – the fear of terrorism to divide Americans by religion, race, and belief, our political leaders are fracturing this nation’s greatest strength: its ability to integrate diverse strands into a unified whole on the basis of shared, pluralistic, democratic values.”
A Massive and Unchecked Surveillance Society
Concluding with the massive expansion of surveillance since 9/11, the report delves into the many ways the government now spies on Americans without any suspicion of wrongdoing, from warrantless wiretapping to cell phone location tracking – but with little to show for it. “The reality is that as governmental surveillance has become easier and less constrained, security agencies are flooded with junk data, generating thousands of false leads that distract from real threats,” the report says.
“A Call to Courage” points out that many controversial policies have been shrouded in secrecy under the rubric of national security, preventing oversight and examination by the public. “We look to our leaders and our institutions, our courts and our Congress, to guide us towards a better way, and it is now up to the American people to demand that our leaders respond to national security challenges with our values, our unity – and yes, our courage – intact.”
With good reason, civil libertarians called foul upon learning that the president has authorized the arrest and indefinite detention of persons, including U.S. citizens, suspected of terrorism-related activity. This is in addition to the administration’s recent decision to loosen the restrictions on the massive data-mining operation that is being undertaken by the large complex of government agencies engaged in counter-terrorism activities. They have access to huge databases, such as our credit card records, and can retain these files for five years. Then, there is the matter of the New York Police Department’s unchecked surveillance of Muslim individuals, mosques, schools, clubs, and other gathering places throughout the Northeast, including on such university campuses as Yale and Rutgers. Much of this NYPD activity has had the active support of the CIA.
Unfortunately, we are, once again, allowing concerns over national security to jeopardize our supposedly inalienable rights. To those who think that only terrorists and criminals need fear their government, the historical evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. When we set aside the Bill of Rights for any reason or for any group, we put all of us at risk and only have ourselves to blame if we fail to take corrective action.