Remember when folks used to think there was some foundational truth in the Constitution that our government was "of, by and for the people"?
The people seem relegated to the sidelines these days as Congressional leaders cut backroom deals without even bothering to allow us the time to analyze their proposals, let alone provide input, before the votes are taken. This week, our out-of-touch and very paranoid Congress sends double trouble to anyone who values civil liberties and peace in the form of the onerous Patriot Act Extension and the dangerous Defense Reauthorization Act of 2012.
On Monday, the Senate voted for cloture by a whopping 74-8 on a measure to extend provisions of the Patriot Act for another four years. What that means in layman's terms is simple—the Senate, formerly called "the greatest deliberative body on Earth," didn't deem it necessary or worthwhile to deliberate one of the most intrusive laws in U.S. history. The deal was done when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, reached an agreement last week with Republican House Speaker John Boehner to move the measure through Congress before members left Washington for their Memorial Day break at the end of this week.
The three worst sections of the law, which would have expired June 1 without Congressional action, include the so-called "lone wolf," roving wiretaps, and the "tangible things" provisions.
The "lone wolf" provision, as part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allowed the government extremely broad latitude in spying on those believed to be attached to or acting on behalf of foreign governments. Now, the authority to do what would otherwise be unconstitutional surveillance can be applied to American citizens with no known foreign connections.
The roving wiretaps provision, which many say violates the Fourth Amendment, allows the government to ignore specificity when seeking warrants and receive what civil libertarians are calling "John Doe warrants" to target locations, online accounts, and user names without explaining to a judge why these people are under suspicion for terrorist activities.
And then there's the "tangible things" provision that not only gives the government the authority to confiscate business records, but also "any tangible things" that federal agents feel might be relevant to their investigation—and those things don't even have to belong to the person under investigation.
To their credit, both of Montana's Senators voted against the Patriot Act extensions along with three Republicans, two other Democrats, and Independent Bernie Sanders. Senator Tester was one of the most vocal in his opposition, calling the measure "a law that tramples on our Constitutional rights" and "invades the privacy of law-abiding Montanans and law-abiding Americans." To her shame, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco, in parroting the fear-mongering used by President Bush to initially stuff the Patriot Act through Congress in the days following the 9-11 attacks, claimed those who wouldn't vote for the measure would be responsible for "not having provisions in place which are necessary to protect the United States at this time."
To his shame, President Obama seems to have conveniently forgotten his 2007 campaign speech in which he declared unequivocally that, if elected, there would be "no more National Security Letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime," adding: "That is not who we are, and it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists." This week, however, his attorney general, Eric Holder, told Congress: "Now more than ever, we need access to the crucial authorities in the Patriot Act."
Not to be outdone in perfidy by the Democrat-controlled Senate, the Republican-controlled House threw its own despicable legislation into the game this week in the Defense Authorization bill. Not only did the House ignore the wishes of the American people (and the promise of the President) to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq and reduce military spending, the bill actually increases the military budget by 4.1 percent over last year, with $553 billion for the Pentagon's so-called "base budget" and another $118 billion for the ongoing wars.
Budgetary excesses aside, the measure also includes provisions that threaten the checks and balances of our government by empowering the president to unilaterally decide when and against whom to extend Bush's misbegotten global war on terror. The actual language of the bill declares that our nation is in "an armed conflict" with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and "associated forces" and "nations, organizations and persons" who support them.
What that means in plain language is that any president can now decide to bomb or invade virtually anywhere he or she decides there is support for the Taliban or Al Qaeda—including within the U.S.—without constitutionally-required Congressional approval. How anyone could possibly think this is a good idea after Bush's baseless invasion of Iraq is beyond reason.
But there's more. The bill not only doesn't get rid of Guantanamo as President Obama promised to do, it actually continues funding for the facility, prohibits funding to house detainees transferred from it, and prohibits any transfers or releases of detainees within the U.S. Furthermore, the measure defines "terrorist offense" to mean any offense for which one could be tried by a military commission, making it possible for U.S. citizens to be denied their constitutional rights to a trial by an impartial jury of their peers, and potentially, even if found innocent, be denied the ability to return to the U.S. if they were held in Guantanamo.
The announced deadline for passing both of these ugly measures is this week. While it sure looks like Congress has no interest in hearing from the American public on the terrible laws it's passing, it might not hurt to let them know we're here and we're not one bit happy with the double trouble they're dishing out.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.