Turns out we’re already living in a surveillance state.

The new FISA “compromise” bill that the Senate is about to pass makes me angry just to think about, but deep down I’ve long suspected that our government pretty much spies on us with impunity already. This Baltimore Sun news article pretty much confirms that suspicion:

“There’s virtually no branch of the U.S. government that isn’t in some way involved in monitoring or surveillance,” said Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian and fellow at the National Security Archives at The George Washington University. “We’re operating in a brave new world.”

[…] The Bush administration argues that the privacy and civil liberties protections in place for surveillance not covered by the FISA rules are “unprecedented.” In addition to the data-mining, use of financial transaction databases and satellite imagery, the surveillance includes monitoring the travel patterns of airline passengers.

[…] But critics say the safeguards don’t always work. Some blunders in the use of such protections have become public. New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright wrote in January about one such experience. In 2002, while he was researching The Looming Tower, his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on al-Qaida, two members of an FBI terrorism task force arrived at his home. Why, they asked, had his daughter been speaking with someone in the United Kingdom who was in touch with suspected al-Qaida operatives?

It wasn’t his daughter, he told them flatly. Wright himself had made the calls. And the person he contacted was a British civil rights lawyer who had asked him not to speak with her clients, some of whom are relatives of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant.

“My daughter is no terrorist – she went to high school with the Bush twins,” Wright said. “I was taken aback. They were apparently monitoring my phones.”

Wright said he was particularly surprised because he was aware of protections supposedly in place to conceal his name and other identifying information that would have been gathered during the creation of transcripts of the call.

Wright said he doubted the government would have been able to get a warrant for the information, and he said he didn’t know how the FBI obtained his daughter’s name, let alone got the impression that she was communicating with the British lawyer.

It’s somewhat ironic to note that the new FISA bill actually has more civil liberties protections than the other domestic spying programs that aren’t covered by it. It makes me feel foolish for getting so worked up about the new FISA rules because, really, the cows got out of the barn a long time ago. There’s been reports of various abuses and misuses of these programs for years now and every time a government agency gets new powers, such as the FBI and its “security letters” thanks to the Patriot Act, it’s usually not too long before we hear about them being abused. If anything I suppose I should be angry that the new FISA bill provides the government with even more power it can abuse, not that they haven’t abused the system under the old rules already. They’re just trying to make it quasi-legal to do so now that everyone knows about it.

Bush Administration doesn’t give a shit about your civil liberties.

Remember back when President Bush first starting asking Congress to pass his various so-called anti-terrorism programs and Congress balked because of the privacy and civil liberties issues that would be impacted? Remember when Bush said, “Not a problem! We’ll set up a Privacy and Civil Liberty Oversight Board to make sure we’re not stepping on anyone’s rights? Remember when it turned out that the board itself wasn’t really living up to its intended purpose so the 9/11 Commission recommended some changes, which Congress implemented, that made the board more independent, bipartisan, and accountable to the public?

Remember all that?

Well the Bush Administration can’t have been too happy with the changes because they’ve made sure there’s no one on it:

The Bush administration has failed to nominate any candidates to a newly empowered privacy and civil-liberties commission. This leaves the board without any members, even as Congress prepares to give the Bush administration extraordinary powers to wiretap without warrants inside the United States.

The failure rankles Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), respectively chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee.

“I urge the president to move swiftly to nominate members to the new board to preserve the public’s faith in our promise to protect their privacy and civil liberties as we work to protect the country against terrorism,” Lieberman said in a statement.

“The White House’s failure to move forward with appointing the new board is unacceptable, and I call on the administration to do so as quickly as possible to prevent a gap in this vital mission,” Collins said in a statement.

Terms for the board’s original members expired on Jan. 30, but no nominations have been sent to the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which must approve appointees for the five vacancies.

Anyone who’s being totally honest with themselves knew this board was a joke the day it was announced and it should come as no surprise that once Congress gave it some teeth and made it independent of the White House that President Bush would suddenly forget to nominate anyone to actually man the post. Not that it matters, even with the revisions Congress made the board is largely powerless to do anything about protecting your civil liberties.

Civil-liberties advocates like Lisa Graves, deputy director of the Center for National Security Studies, considered the board to be apologists for the government’s anti-terrorism policies, rather than independent civil-liberties watchdogs.

“This board failed miserably in its mission of helping to protect Americans’ privacy and instead acted mainly to help the White House whitewash programs like warrantless NSA wiretapping that violate Americans’ civil liberties,” Graves said. “Now that Congress has changed the board’s rules to make it a little more independent, the White House appears to have no interest in appointing anyone to it.”

But even the newly configured board doesn’t have enough power and what is really needed is a totally independent body with the ability to subpoena documents, according to Timothy Sparapani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We want them to be more than just the privacy version of Congressional Research Service,” Sparapani said. “They need to be able to slap hands and force people to consider privacy in the initial creation of programs, and then whack people into line when privacy violations occur.”

What I find amazing, however, is the fact that the Bush Administration is still trying to expand the President’s power to spy on Americans despite the very good possibility that the next President will be a Democrat. Either they’re delusional in thinking there’s no way in hell a Republican won’t win the election or they’re convinced that a Democrat would never abuse the power in the manner which they have.

A timeline of the Bush Administration’s assault on the Bill of Rights.

I’ve ranted on many occasions about the slow but relentless assault on the Bill of Rights that the Bush Administration has been engaged in since they came into office, but even I was shocked when I read MonoGlobo’s Bill of Rights: A Timeline. Here’s a couple of examples:

October

The USA Patriot Act becomes law. Among other things the law: makes it a crime for anyone to contribute money or material support for any group on the State Department’s Terror Watch List, allows the FBI to monitor and tape conversations between attorneys and clients, allows the FBI to order librarians to turn over information about patron’s reading habits, allows the government to conduct surveillance on internet and email use of US citizens without notice. The act also calls for expanded use of National Security Letters (NSLs), which allow the FBI to search telephone, email and financial records of US citizens without a court order, exempts the government from needing to reveal how evidence against suspected terrorists was obtained and authorizes indefinite detention of immigrants at the discretion of law enforcement and immigration authorities.

NJ Superior court judge and civil liberties scholar Anthony Napolitano, author of A Nation of Sheep, has described the law’s assault on first and fourth amendment principles as follows, “The Patriot Act’s two most principle constitutional errors are an assault on the Fourth Amendment, and on the First. It permits federal agents to write their own search warrants [under the name “national security letters”] with no judge having examined evidence and agreed that it’s likely that the person or thing the government wants to search will reveal evidence of a crime… Not only that, but the Patriot Act makes it a felony for the recipient of a self-written search warrant to reveal it to anyone. The Patriot Act allows [agents] to serve self-written search warrants on financial institutions, and the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2004 in Orwellian language defines that to include in addition to banks, also delis, bodegas, restaurants, hotels, doctors’ offices, lawyers’ offices, telecoms, HMOs, hospitals, casinos, jewelry dealers, automobile dealers, boat dealers, and that great financial institution to which we all would repose our fortunes, the post office. Link 1 | Link 2

November

Executive order limits release of presidential documents. The order gives incumbent presidents the right to veto requests to open any past presidential records and supercedes the congressionally passed law of 1978 mandating release of all presidential records not explicitly deemed classified. Link

Seeing the entire list is sobering to say the least and a reminder of the damage to our civil liberties inflicted by the current administration. It may be years before any of it can be undone and much of it may be lost altogether. Politicians and governments are often less than enthusiastic to give back rights they’ve taken away.