I'm am unapologetic bleeding heart who believes that my right to be free from the threat of terrorism must be counterbalanced by my right to be free from government overreach. But as forthright and constitutionally sound as that view may be, too few politicians have shared it in the years since the 9/11 attacks rocked the national boat. That seems to have changed last week with bipartisan approval of a seemingly watered down U.S.A. Patriot Act with new restrictions on National Security Agency snooping, but on closer inspection that's not really the case.
In a warp-speed action that Big Brother loved and had George Orwell spinning in his grave, Congress passed the Patriot Act six weeks after 9/11 and handed the Bush administration a big fat blank check. A number of civil liberties-focused amendments counterbalancing the law's more draconian provisions were rejected. Some 66 congressfolk voted against the law, while Russell Feingold of Wisconsin cast the lone dissenting vote in the Senate.
President Bush and his neocon puppet masters took the blank check and ran with it.
The NSA began an extraordinary phone metadata collection program, the full extent of which was not made public until Edward Snowden spilled the beans on it and other super-secret government mischief in June 2013. The Bush White House viewed the Patriot Act as giving it carte blache to conduct what was being called the War on Terror as it saw fit and with no regard as to constitutional niceties, the upshot being that the administration deftly -- if perversely -- undercut many of the very American values the fight against Al Qaeda and other emerging terrorist threats were supposed to protect. These included the extensive use of torture as an "enhanced" interrogation technique and emergence of an imperial presidency greased by secret pretzel-logical Justice Department legal opinions, my favorite being what I call Mukasey's Law: "Lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers."
Barack Obama had been against the Patriot Act before he was for it, and in May 2011 signed a four-year extension of its key provisions, but by the time it again came up for renewal last month, there seems to have been a change of heart in Congress that the media attributed to a change in the public mood. In the wake of 9/11, 75 percent of the very frightened American people in effect endorsed a police state, while one recent poll showed that 74 percent of the American people are now averse to giving up personal liberties, an attitude shift for which -- like it or not -- Snowden must be given a lot of credit.
Earlier this week, 67 senators -- including 23 Republicans -- voted to renew the act, now dubbed the USA Freedom Act, but with a key change in Section 215, which was amended to stop the NSA from continuing its mass phone data collection program. Instead, phone companies would retain the data, which the NSA could now obtain with permission from a federal court on a case-by-case basis.
In other words, the NSA will now need a court's rubber stamp, an inconvenience to be sure, but not the sea change depicted in the media. Meanwhile, the warrantless wiretap provision, among other holdovers in the act, live on. The massive government security apparatus has survived with barely a ding, while only yesterday it was revealed in The New York Times that the NSA, with the Obama administration's approval, has branched out into warrantless surveillance of Americans' Internet traffic without public notice or debate, ostensibly to track down foreign hackers, but it also has the ability to monitor emails and determine wrongdoing with substantially lower legal standards than criminal inquiries. Snowden was the source of the new information.
Beyond hair-on-fire Senator Rand Paul, there is indeed a new libertarian mood in Congress, and even some Tea Partiers noted that the blanket NSA phone snooping was a breach of the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable government seizure. Said hyper-conservative Republican Congressman Justin Amash: "No serious representative or senator thinks it's OK to reauthorize unconstitutional spying on all Americans." (Note that a federal appeals court said the same thing in April in ruling that the NSA data dragnet was "an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans.")
Even the Justice Department acknowledges that the data being mined is so vast that the government cannot sift through it quickly or effectively enough to stop events such as the Boston Marathon bombings, the Ft. Hood massacre, and the attempted massacre last month outside of Dallas. In fact, this orgy of spying has not succeeded in stopping any terrorist plots or aided any federal terrorism prosecutions. So why do it? Because the government wants to create the impression that it is doing something.
The big back story to this week's rare bi-partisan moment was that Mitch McConnell was left looking like an even bigger smacked ass than he already was.
The Senate GOP leader assumed that if Obama was for the revised Patriot Act then he and the GOP should be against it. Natch. McConnell's "ideological mindlessness," as one commentator called his monumental fumble, blinded him to the reality that most of his House colleagues and a fair number of Senate colleagues, as well, supported the bill. Poor, poor Mitch.
SANTORUM TO POPE: FUGGEDABOUT THE PLANET
I have yet to read a plausible scenario by which Rick Santorum can take the wheel of the Republican primary election clown car, let alone win the GOP nomination, although he is considered by some wizened souls to have been runner-up to Mitt Romney in 2012, which is pretty scary in and of itself.
Santorum wouldn't even be able to win Pennsylvania, where as an incumbent U.S. Senator he got throttled by 16 percentage points in 2006, the largest losing margin for a Senate incumbent in history. What he can do with some of his nuttier positions -- like opposing contraception, believing that a child conceived through a rape is a "gift from God," oh, and that liberal brahmins made all those Catholic priests in Boston become drooling pedophiles -- is force the other clowns to tack harder to the right, although it is unlikely any of them will do what this devout Catholic has done: Take on Pope Francis for framing climate change as a moral issue.
Like Santorum, few Republicans of any stature believe global warming is for real despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, but here was Santorum telling a Philadelphia show host earlier this week that the pope should leave science to scientists and his cred would be damaged if he issued a promised encyclical on climate change.
"The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focus on what we're really good at, which is theology and morality," Santorum said. "And I think when we get involved with political and controversial scientific theories, then I think the church is probably not as forceful and credible."
The church should tend to souls, he said. Fuggedabout the planet.
IMAGE FROM LIBERTY BLITZKRIEG BLOG