By Sean Merrill
Last month, a federal judge in California ruled the FBI had overstepped its constitutional boundaries when it demanded phone, banking and Internet records from companies without warrants or any oversight whatsoever. The National Security Letters (NSL) were sent in total secrecy; although the public was aware of the FBI’s extreme overreach of its authority, companies that received NSL’s from the FBI were not allowed to discuss them until they were given permission.
At the heart of the issue is the often excessive use and abuse of power the government wields in the name of national security.
This overreaching of power was one of the most debated and controversial parts of the Patriot Act. At the heart of the issue is the often excessive use and abuse of power the government wields in the name of national security. Certainly the government has the responsibility of keeping its citizens safe from invasion and other attacks. Without a doubt, no one wants to witness or be a victim of a tragedy such as Oklahoma City or 9/11. And it goes without saying that we would not necessarily want nations like Iran or North Korea to be privy to our most sensitive information. But where do we draw the line? How far is too far for the government to spy and snoop into the lives of ordinary citizens? How could the FBI (or any other government agency for that matter) implement such an Orwellian policy and execute it for so long without any oversight or checks and balances in the system? How can elected leaders who take an oath and vow to protect the Constitution allow such blatant disregard for civil liberties to occur?
How could the FBI (or any other government agency for that matter) implement such an Orwellian policy and execute it for so long without any oversight or checks and balances in the system?
President Obama has established a program called the Open Government Initiative, which is meant to increase transparency and accountability. The President released a memo addressing this issue and called on government agencies to adopt a sense of openness when fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests. There is, however, an extensive list of exemptions that agencies can hide behind to avoid acting in accordance with FOIA requests. In fact, the CIA is exempt from complying with FOIA or the Privacy Act. There really is very little explanation an agency has to give when denying a FOIA request. For example, if a particular company received an NSL from the FBI, they were prohibited from discussing it publicly. Although the NSL’s did not specifically log the content of an individuals activities; sites visited and to whom you are corresponding through email with, but not the actual conversation itself. All that said, the FBI basically ordained itself as the de facto authority to be the “judge, jury, and executioner” in cases involving warrantless wiretapping and NSL’s. The judge in California who ruled on this case said that this policy violated the Constitution’s separation of powers.
Now–probably more than ever before in our history as a nation–it is vital for us to be well informed and to be active participants in our government.
It is imperative to remember that–as far as technology is concerned– we are in new, uncharted waters. Government agencies, like the FBI, make use of some of the most advanced technologies available, but legislators and the judicial system have been reluctant to put the brakes on that unchecked power. We as Americans view the right to privacy to be among the most basic and essential of rights; the thought of Big Brother intruding on that privacy is enough to make most of us sick. Now–probably more than ever before in our history as a nation–it is vital for us to be well informed and to be active participants in our government.