While the economy was melting down this week we had a quick and mostly unnoticed drive-by shooting of our Constitution. It was a small dispatch from ABC News reporting on the N.S.A. The N.S.A or more appropriately the NSA/CSS for National Security Agency/ Central Security Service is a super secret spy agency. It is supposed to collect the communications of foreign governments and independent hostile actors. In the post 9/11 era the NSA was trying to listen in on Osama’s cell phone conversations and other forms of “terrorist communications.
Thanks to FISA and Warrantless wiretapping the NSA could listen to and record any communication that it might interested in; no matter how peripheral. The unwashed masses were assured that the government would never abuse this authority. No Mr. and Mrs. American citizen, the government would only listen into those evil foreign terrorist plotting to do evil things. At least that was the talking point put out by the Administration and their water carriers on Fox News. It was surprise, surprise, a big fat lie.
Turns out that when there is no oversight by the courts or the legislature there really will be abuse after all. Technicians decided to listen in on the very private conversation of American citizens. It gets worse. Those citizens were the loved ones and spouses of military service members. The pillow talk of our men and women in uniform station overseas was recorded and shared as entertainment of jaded NSA staffers.
Very few Americans have any idea of the type of sacrifices a military life requires. Even fewer have had to deal with the stresses of an overseas posting. Still fewer know what it is like to serve in what the military terms isolated duty. Isolated duty, where the service member is deployed to a duty station without his or her family, is one of the hardest tours to endure. It only gets worse when the service member is in a combat zone. Each communication with a loved one is that much more intense and precious. It is a rare and special moment of intimacy and privacy in a life that has very little of either. To have those special moments passed around for the prurient entertainment of bored technicians who were not supposed to be listening in to tehm in the first place is appalling.
This is why we have, or should we say had the 4th Amendment in the first place. When you give people carte blanche to pry into people’s personal lives they will delve into places they have no business being. Our founders knew the extent an untrammeled executive would go if not curtailed. They placed the courts as a firebreak to the excesses of the executive. But that was before the FISA cave-in by our legislators.
It was not like the Congress did not know what the Bush Administration was up to. They had the story from James Comey of John Ashcroft’s hospital bed refusal to sign on to the secret surveillance / warrantless wire tap program that the Bush Administration was running. Somehow Congress never got an answer on exactly what this program was. We can only guess the full wretchedness and illegality of that program. It had to be hideous for a rock-ribbed conservative like John Ashcroft to object to it. Still the Congress gave Bush a get out of jail free card and retroactively approved the massive intrusion into our private lives on the oft chance that someone may be blowing kisses to Osama bin Laden via AT&T’s friends and family program.
With that approval the NSA was able to listen to anything they damn well pleased. No person or group was immune from the prying ears of the spooks at the “Puzzle Palace” not our servicemembers, not NGOs. Both Doctors without Borders and the I.R.C. were bugged. This rampant disregard for probity and rules of any kind has become a hallmark of the Bush / Cheney Administration. While sickening the disclosure of this behavior by the N.S.A. is hardly surprising. Older heads, those who recall the Church Committee hearings, remember this all too well. Those graying heads remember the abuses of the C.I.A., D.I.A., F.B.I., and other intelligence gathering agencies during the Vietnam War Protests. They remember the stomach churning abuses perpetrated by that old cross-dresser J. Edgar Hoover. For them it is especially distressing that we are repeating that awful history. Back then the excuse was fighting Communists; now the excuse is fighting terrorism. The violations of the law, of common decency are distressingly similar.
If there is a silver lining in this dark cloud it is the fact that civil libertarians have not given up. There is a civil suite against Verizon challenging the warrantless wiretapping undertaken on government orders. There is a specific challenge to the retroactive immunity granted in the FISA bill as an unconstitutional ex post facto law. Will we get a 5-4 upholding of that proposition? It is the best we can hope for. If we had a sane Supreme Court, not one packed with Republican Ideologues from the Federalist Society, we would not have to worry if Justice Kennedy might slip over to Dark Side with Dick Cheney. Remember that the Kangaroo Court known as the Military Commission Tribunal in Gitmo was struck down by a slim 5-4 vote. Alito, Roberts, Thomas, and Scalia were just fine with shredding Habeas Corpus. Scalia was especially hideous in his comments, sounding like a candidate for the Republican presidential primaries instead of the sober justice of the highest court in the land.
While we wait for our government to return to us our Constitutional rights to us there we are not totally without options. If you have friends in foreign lands or family members deployed by the military overseas get them a pair of these gadgets for their stocking stuffers this Christmas. After all Osama has not only a nice secure land-line but probably one of these too.