Thursday, December 17, 2009

Spooky Stuff

As the year winds down to a close, one thing the 111th Congress has not rushed to do (yet) is to extend certain provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire at the end of the year. What I suspect will happen is that in the next day or two, short-term extensions will pass which will enable Congress to revisit that detestable legislation in 2010. Hopefully the entire act will be reviewed and not just those set to expire.

An article in the NY Times gives some concrete reasons for why such a full-scale review is necessary.

In February, a Department of Homeland Security intelligence official wrote a “threat assessment” for the police in Wisconsin about a demonstration involving local pro- and anti-abortion rights groups.

That report soon drew internal criticism because the groups “posed no threat to homeland security,” according to a department memorandum released on Wednesday in connection with a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The agency destroyed all its copies of the report and gave the author remedial training.

In March 2008, the office produced a “terrorism watch list” report about a Muslim conference in Georgia at which several Americans were scheduled to speak, even though it “did not have any evidence the conference or the speakers promoted radical extremism or terrorist activity,” and such speech is constitutionally protected, an internal report said.

And in October 2007, the office sent a report, “Nation of Islam: Uncertain Leadership Succession Poses Risks,” to hundreds of federal officials. Department guidelines had called for the files to be destroyed because the assessment of the group had lasted more than 180 days without uncovering evidence of potential terrorism.

As the article points out, all three reports and the files which generated those reports were ordered destroyed by DHS. While that is some comfort, it is cold comfort at best. First of all, I am not convinced that all traces of those investigations have disappeared. Somewhere there are files containing the names of subjects just waiting to be pulled up. And at least one of those reports was ordered destroyed after it had been sent to "hundreds of government officials."

Second, and perhaps even more important, the Patriot Act, in both its iterations, fostered an atmosphere in which such unlawful intelligence gathering was bound to happen, especially when the penalty for such snooping on citizens was nothing more than "remedial training." That means that such behavior will continue, especially since the current White House has done nothing concrete to ensure the behavior stops.

And that means that Congress should do the job by just repealing the Patriot Act. Of course, such a bold move is unlikely, given the current make-up of our national legislature, unless a few feet are held to the fire. One way to do that is to publish more articles like this one. Let's see if our press is ready to return to work.

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