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Thursday, December 14th 2006

The Real Civil Liberties Question…

…will they tap my phone calls while I’m on a plane? This administration has had plenty of civil liberty gaffes.

A Horror Show For Like Minded Civil Libertarians

This post is merely a summary of what is going on since I last commented on the mess that has been the wiretapping and profiling efforts of the government since 2001.

Making the news recently is the Automated Tracking System, and the White House’s “civil liberties superduper protection force.

That board, dictated with the task of protecting the liberties of Americans from the government’s programs, defined its role as such, at its first meeting,

“The question is, how much can the board share with the public about the protections incorporated in both the development and implementation of those policies?” said Alan Raul, a Washington D.C. lawyer who serves as vice chairman. “On the public side, I believe the board can help advance national security and the rights of American by helping explain how the government safeguards U.S. personal information.”

Board members were briefed on the government’s NSA-run warrantless wiretapping program last week, and said they were impressed by how the program handled information collected from American citizens’ private phone calls and e-mail.

Lovely. Our intelligence and profiling capabilities seem like a mess. And we’re sacrificing our privacy for these failing projects. In December, after the NSA Wiretapping program broke, Attorney General Gonzales had this to say,

“[The program targets communications when it] has a reasonable basis to conclude that one party to the communication is a member of al Qaeda, affiliated with al Qaeda, or a member of an organization affiliated with al Qaeda, or working in support of al Qaeda.”

Apparently we have different definitions of reasonable. Washington Post sources disclosed in February that,

Intelligence officers who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat

Shouldn’t “reasonable” suspicion yield a better “success” rate in actually identifying those engaging in terroristic planning activities, than 0%? Maybe if they expand the net, they’ll increase their chances of catching someone…*rolls eyes*

In anycase, the NSA program still stands where it has stood for months. A federal judge made an appluadable decision suspending it, but did so using terrible judicial logic, and the 6th Court of Appeals allowed the program to continue while the U.S. appeals the original decision.

What is “new,” at least as far as the media is concerned, is the Automated Tracking System mentioned above. Every time you leave the country the system tracks you. If you’re flying it wants to know how you paid for your ticket, what seat you’re seating in, what meal you ordered, who you’re traveling with, when you bought the ticket, and on and on.

Can you see the information kept in the database on you? No. So, if it mistakenly identifies you as a terrorist and someone comes knocking on your door or you’re on a no fly list it is a long and arduous process to do anything about. How can you contest data if you don’t even know what it is.

Nevermind that this is a gross violation of the most important liberty of all – privacy.

Still, with little chance for major success, privacy groups are fighting back. Kinda like…

This Is Gonna Put One Heck Of A Scratch On That Tank

The Identity Project, founded by online rights pioneer John Gilmore, filed official objections (.pdf) to the Automated Targeting System, or ATS, on Monday, calling the program clearly illegal.

The comment cited a little-known provision in the 2007 Homeland Security funding bill prohibiting government agencies from developing algorithms that assign risk scores to travelers not on government watchlists.

“By cloaking this prohibited action in a border issue … the Department of Homeland Security directly and openly contravenes Congress’ clear intent,” wrote project members Edward Hasbrouck and James Harrison.

The language prohibits appropriations to the Department of Homeland Security from being used (ah, the power of the purse strings) to develop programs which assign scores to passengers not already on watch lists. Specifically the provision was put in to combat Secure Flight, a domestic version of the Automated Tracking System which drew enough criticism to not get off the ground.

Of course the Department of Homeland Security refutes that,

DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen disputes that interpretation. “The language in the appropriation bill refers specifically to Secure Flight,” Agen said. “The authority for ATS is all mandated by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which mandates that we receive the airline data and interpret that data to keep terrorists out of the country.”

And where there’s “vagueness,” even pretend vagueness, we know who’ll come out ahead in any bureaucratic hearing.

In Time Chertoff defends the ATS program as if we’re his grand kid sitting on his lap,

The point, says Chertoff, is to use all the tools we have to act before the terrorist do. “If we sit back and just rely on a list of names, we will likely miss something. And we do not want to be in that position ever again.”

Ridiculous. Two points:

1) We can never make this country completely secure. So guaranting we’ll never be in that position again because of programs like this is ludicrous.
2) We could make this country MORE secure if we were willing to give up more liberties.

He’s dumb downed the argument, the debate, so much that it makes you wonder how he got through his essays in high school English. Or maybe he really just imagines that this is the level of discourse amongst the American public on this issue. “All they need is a little reassurance.”

But the real issue is how to weigh civil liberties and security (I’ll give you one guess which one I think needs to be protected). Chertoff’s quote shows a complete disregard for the even basic framing of the issue or, beyond that, a basic understanding of the frustration mounting over programs like the Automated Tracking System.

Maybe things will start to change. Like in the first hundred hours. Oh wait, even the Dems are centered on security before liberty. What exactly are we securing other than liberty?

Pelosi is centered on following that beautiful blueprint known as the 9/11 Commission Report. Too bad we already have all the civil liberty protections that the 9/11 Commission called for; the executive branch’s civil liberty board which just met for the first time. And the goal of that Board?

“[H]elp advance national security and the rights of American by helping explain how the government safeguards U.S. personal information.”

Please, explain it to us.