“The Patriot Act extension passed the House with nearly all Democrats voting for it. When Pres. Trump signs it into law, Democrats will be just as responsible for warrantless surveillance as Trump and the GOP. Neither party is looking out for you.” – Rep. Justin Amash
House Democrats voted almost unanimously to extend the Patriot Act in their budget bill on Tuesday, granting massive surveillance powers to a president they are trying to impeach because of the danger his corruption poses to national security. The apparently contradictory action reflects a long tradition of bipartisan consensus in giving intelligence agencies free rein to violate the constitution and abuse their covert powers.
“Very cool way to resist Trump by ensuring he continues to have terrifying authoritarian surveillance powers,” tweeted Evan Greer, deputy director for digital rights advocacy group Fight For The Future.
What is the Patriot Act?
The Patriot Act of 2001 was the essential legislation that enabled the NSA and other government agencies to conduct mass surveillance and warrantless searches against Americans with no oversight. First introduced by Joe Biden in 1995 as The Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995, the bill was enacted after 9/11 under the pretense of fighting terrorism.
Because of its extreme mandate, the Patriot Act included sunset clauses to fade out its provisions unless Congress voted for their reauthorization. Congress has repeatedly done so, including the latest three month extension, which was quietly included in a government funding resolution by House Speaker Pelosi, who once called the bill “a massive invasion of privacy,” and other Democratic leaders.
“The Patriot Act extension passed the House with nearly all Democrats voting for it,” tweeted Rep. Justin Amash. “When Pres. Trump signs it into law, Democrats will be just as responsible for warrantless surveillance as Trump and the GOP. Neither party is looking out for you. That’s why I’m an independent.”
Amash, a former Republican who left the party in protest of Trump’s leadership, proposed an amendment to remove the Patriot Act extension from the budget bill, but it was blocked by Democrats on the Rules Committee. Only 10 Democrats voted against the resolution, including “the Squad” of Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar. The bill passed 231-192, mostly on party lines.
“The continuing resolution would reauthorize a mass surveillance authority that has never been proven useful and that has consistently broken the laws and rules governing surveillance,” tweeted Demand Progress.
U.S. Government’s History Of Abusing Surveillance Powers
Beyond the violation of civil liberties posed by mass government surveillance of citizens, critics argue the U.S. government’s history of abusing its covert powers for sinister purposes proves it is too irresponsible to merit such vast power.
The Snowden leaks revealed how the National Security Agency (NSA) violates the fourth amendment to spy on American citizens, but beyond the NSA, agencies like the FBI, CIA, DHS, and DEA have all abused mass surveillance powers. The scope of their activities is not publicly known.
The FBI, for example, has a long list of crimes including the Palmer Raids and torturing Puerto Rican independence activists, and has long devoted public resources to illegally surveilling nonviolent civil society groups and protest movements.
Patriot Act Dangerously Expands CIA Powers
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns that perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the Patriot Act is expanding the CIA’s power to spy on Americans. The ACLU cites Operation CHAOS, when the CIA spied on student activists and people opposed to Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, as an example of the agency’s willingness to infringe on lawful political activity protected under the first and fourth amendments.
The CIA’s involvement in coups, executions, mind control experiments, and other nefarious pursuits have led critics, including multiple presidents, to view it as more of an unaccountable criminal organization than a legitimate democratic institution.
After being asked about the creation of the CIA, President Truman told his biographer: “I think it was a mistake. If I’d known what was going to happen, I never would have done it.”
“Those fellows in the CIA don’t just report on wars and the like, they go out and make their own, and there’s nobody to keep track of what they’re up to,” said Truman. “They spend billions of dollars on stirring up trouble so they’ll have something to report on. They’ve become … it’s become a government all of its own and all secret. They don’t have to account to anybody.”
“That’s a very dangerous thing in a democratic society, and it’s got to be put a stop to,” said Truman. One month after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who once said he wanted to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds,” Truman publicized his warnings with a Washington Post op-ed titled “Limit CIA Role to Intelligence.”
Eisenhower also famously warned the American public of “the military industrial complex,” the unaccountable nexus of intelligence organizations and their corporate, political, and military allies which he believed would subvert US democracy without the vigilance of an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry.”
Journalist David Talbot, who detailed the life of CIA director Allen Dulles in his book “The Devil’s Chessboard,” views Snowden’s revelations as a manifestation of Eisenhower and Truman’s warnings: “The surveillance state that Snowden and others have exposed is very much a legacy of the Dulles past. I think Dulles would have been delighted by how technology and other developments have allowed the American security state to go much further than he went.”
Snowden shares Talbot’s fears that new technology will give the surveillance state unprecedented power. “The greatest danger still lies ahead, with the refinement of artificial intelligence capabilities, such as facial and pattern recognition,” the whistleblower told the Guardian in September.