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4th amendment Congress CURRENT EVENTS Intelwars NSA Patriot Act section 215 Surveillance

A Primer on Domestic Spying

A pernicious piece of legislation is slowly and silently making its way through Congress. It is a renewal of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The Patriot Act of 2001 has three sections that are scheduled to expire on March 15. One of those sections is the infamous 215, which authorizes the federal government to capture without a warrant all records of all people in America held by third parties.

Do we really want the federal government to spy without warrants? How can Congress, which has sworn to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, legislate such a blatant violation of it? Here is the backstory.

After the Constitution was ratified in 1789, it was soon amended to recognize the existence of natural rights and to keep the government from interfering with them. As Justice Brandeis wrote 140 years afterward, the most comprehensive of those rights was the right to be let alone, which today we call privacy.

To secure that right, the Fourth Amendment was ratified. The purpose of the Fourth Amendment was to prevent the government from utilizing general warrants and to require judicially authorized search warrants issued under narrow circumstances. James Madison, who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, shared the hatred that colonists-turned-Americans had for general warrants.

A general warrant was a document issued by a secret court in London authorizing the bearer of the document, usually a British soldier or intelligence agent, to search wherever he wished and to seize whatever he found. The applicant for the warrant needed to demonstrate to the court only that the warrant was intended to unearth something that the government wanted. Because these warrants did not specify the object of the search, there was no limit to them.

Hence Madison’s language in the Fourth Amendment preserving privacy but permitting the government to invade it only upon a showing, under oath, of probable cause of crime, and then requiring the warrant to specify in writing the place to be searched or the person or thing to be seized.

After 9/11, in the collective spirit of fear, timidity and subservience to the presidency, and in utter disregard for its members’ oaths to uphold the Constitution, Congress enacted the Patriot Act. It permits one federal agent to authorize another federal agent to search and seize whatever the latter wishes to look at and capture so long as it is in the possession of third-party financial institutions.

Over the years, the definition of “financial institution” has been radically expanded by both legislation and presidential executive orders so as to include nearly every conceivable entity that has any records about any person in America — from banks to hospitals to lawyers to merchants to credit card issuers to telecoms and computer service providers and even the post office.

At the same time that the Patriot Act was being expanded, the National Security Agency — America’s 60,000-person strong domestic spy apparatus — was not even pretending to follow legislation. We know from Edward Snowden’s revelations — which have never been disputed by the government — that since 2003, the NSA has captured not only the records of Americans held by third parties but also the records of every keystroke touched by every person in America and every telephone call transmitted over fiber optic cable. That includes every email, text message and piece of data — even what was deleted. This warrantless mass surveillance continues today unabated.

Also unabated and equally unlawful and unconstitutional is the government’s use of cell towers as monitors of movement. Whenever anyone travels with a mobile device in the U.S., the nearest cell tower picks up signals from the mobile device, even turned off. The government, which either owns the cell towers or under Section 215, captures all the data the towers amass, can effectively follow any person with a mobile device in real-time.

How does the government get away with this?

The feds have labored mightily to keep all of these constitutional violations as far from judicial scrutiny as they can. They rightly fear — they know — that all of this violates the Fourth Amendment. If their nefarious behavior, which we know they have used on the president of the United States and on the Supreme Court, comes under judicial scrutiny, the feds will argue that the Fourth Amendment only pertains to criminal prosecutions and not to domestic spying; thus, they can ignore it when they spy.

They have made up this argument out of thin air. There is neither a hint in the language of the amendment nor a whiff in its history to support that argument.

Has the government lost sight of our birthright? It is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — not to mention getting into Heaven. How can we do any of this if the government we have hired to preserve our liberty is surreptitiously destroying it?

Brandeis’ language about being let alone was written in 1928, in a dissent to a Supreme Court opinion that failed to recognize the right to privacy. Today, his dissent is the law of the land, but the feds ignore it. He wrote that there is more to life than owning material goods. There is the fulfillment of spiritual, intellectual and cultural goals and the achievement of intimate aspirations, none of which are the government’s business.

Why do we permit the government to assault our most basic freedoms, under the law or under the table?

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CURRENT EVENTS Donald Trump FISA Intelwars NSA Patriot Act section 215 Surveillance

More Spying and Lying

While most of us have been thinking about the end of summer and while the political class frets over the Democratic presidential debates and the aborted visit of two members of Congress to Israel, the Trump administration has quietly moved to extend and make permanent the government’s authority to spy on all persons in America.

The president, never at a loss for words, must have been asked by the intelligence community he once reviled not to address these matters in public.

These matters include the very means and the very secret court about which he complained loud and long during the Mueller investigation. Now, he wants to be able to unleash permanently on all of us the evils he claims were visited upon him by the Obama-era FBI and by his own FBI. What’s going on?

Here is the backstory.

After the lawlessness of Watergate had been exposed — a president spying on his political adversaries without warrants in the name of national security — Congress enacted in 1978 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It prescribed a means for surveillance other than that which the Constitution requires.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution — written in the aftermath of British soldiers and agents using general warrants obtained from a secret court in London to spy on whomever in the colonies they wished and to seize whatever they found — was ratified as part of the Bill of Rights to limit the government’s ability to intrude upon the privacy of all persons, thereby prohibiting those procedures used by the British.

Thus, we have the constitutional requirements that no searches and seizures can occur without a warrant issued by a judge based on a showing, under oath, of probable cause of crime. The courts have uniformly characterized electronic surveillance as a search.

I am not addressing eyesight surveillance on a public street. I am addressing electronic surveillance wherever one is when one sends or receives digital communications. FISA is an unconstitutional congressional effort to lower the standards required by the Fourth Amendment from probable cause of crime to probable cause of foreign agency.

Can Congress do that? Can it change a provision of the Constitution? Of course not. If it could, we wouldn’t have a Constitution.

It gets worse.

The court established by FISA — that’s the same court that President Donald Trump asserts authorized spying on him in 2015 and 2016 — has morphed the requirement of probable cause of being a foreign agent to probable cause of communicating with a foreign person as the standard for authorizing surveillance.

What was initially aimed at foreign agents physically present in the United States has secretly become a means to spy on innocent Americans. In Trump’s case, the FISA court used the foreign and irrelevant communications of two part-time campaign workers to justify surveillance on the campaign.

Add to all this the 2002 secret order of President George W. Bush directing the National Security Agency to spy on all in America all the time without warrants — this is what Edward Snowden exposed in 2013 — and one can see what has happened.

What happened?

What happened was the creation of a surveillance state in America that came about by secret court rulings and a once-secret presidential order. As a result of this, part of the government goes to the secret FISA court and obtains search warrants on flimsy and unconstitutional grounds and part of the government bypasses FISA altogether and spies on everyone in America and denies it and lies about it.

Bill Binney, the genius mathematician who once worked for the NSA and now is its harshest critic, has stated many times that, as unconstitutional as FISA is, it is a pretext to NSA spying on all persons in America all the time.

How pervasive is this unlawful spying? According to Binney, the NSA’s 60,000 domestic spies capture the content and the keystrokes of every communication transmitted on fiber optic cables into or out of or wholly within the United States. And they do so 24/7 — without warrants.

Now, back to that quiet late summer proposal by the Trump administration. Some of the statutes that govern who can go to the FISA court and under what circumstances they can go are about to expire. Inexplicably, the president once victimized by FISA wants to make these statutes permanent. And he wants to do so knowing that they are essentially a facade for spying. That would institutionalize the now decades-long federal assault on privacy and evasion of constitutional norms.

It would also place Trump in the same category as his two immediate predecessors, who regularly ordered government agents to violate the Fourth Amendment and then denied they had done so.

Some of my Fox colleagues joke with me that I am shoveling against the tide when it comes to defending the right to privacy. They claim that there is no more privacy. I disagree with them. As long as we still have a Constitution, it must be taken seriously and must mean what it says. And its intentionally stringent requirements for enabling the government to invade privacy remain the law of the land. The president has sworn to uphold the Constitution, not the NSA.

The late Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland once wrote that we cannot pick and choose which parts of the Constitution to follow and which to ignore. If we could, the Constitution would be meaningless.

Did he foresee our present woes when he wrote, “If the provisions of the Constitution be not upheld when they pinch as well as when they comfort, they may as well be abandoned”?

Is that where we are headed?

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