"Trust Us" Government

Sen. Russ Feingold explains in clear and simple terms the prevailing theory behind the government's eavesdropping powers.


Glenn Greenwald
January 30, 2008 5:07AM (UTC)

After vowing yesterday to veto a 30-day extension of the Protect America Act, the White House and Congressional Republicans today agreed to a 15-day extension. The Senate will now proceed to vote on the various amendments pending on the Cheney/Rockefeller bill and will then almost certainly vote in favor of that bill in some form, granting amnesty to lawbreaking telecoms and new warrantless eavesdropping powers to the President.

Realistically, there are really only two possible ways for all of this to be derailed: (1) the Senate passes one or more pending amendments which is unacceptable to the White House and thus provokes a veto of the bill Congress passes (the most likely candidates: Sen. Feinstein's amendment declaring (again) that FISA is the "exclusive means" for eavesdropping and/or Sen. Feingold's amendment compelling the disclosure to Congress of the secret FISA court rulings which the White House claimed prompted the need for changes to FISA in the first place); or,

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(2) the House stands firm with the bill it already passed and refuses to provide telecom amnesty and new warrantless eavesdropping powers, even once the Senate does so. At this point, option (1) seems far more likely, as the Blue Dogs can single-handedly fulfill all the President's demands by voting (along with the Republicans) in favor of the Senate bill.

The White House -- understandably -- is extremely confident that they will win, as they always do, telling "conservative journalists" with whom they met today: "once the Senate votes to make FISA permanent -- including immunity for the telecoms -- the House will acquiesce." And here is what the GOP leadership is telling Democrats in light of this extension: "House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) warns: 'This is the Democrats' last chance - in two more weeks, if they fail to get a bill completed, there will be no more excuses available.'" Note the tone Congressional Republicans use when they "warn" Democrats and give them their marching orders -- that of an increasingly impatient teacher warning a delinquent student.

With all the focus on the travesty of telecom amnesty, it has been easy to forget just how Draconian the Protect America Act really is, how radical are the warrantless eavesdropping powers it vested in the President. In essence, that bill allowed the Government to eavesdrop on every single international telephone call made or received by an American with no restrictions or judicial oversight whatsoever, and further empowered the Government to read every international email sent or received by an American with no restrictions or judicial oversight.

In a meeting with several bloggers this morning, Russ Feingold provided a very concise and easy-to-understand explanation for why this is so threatening:



"Trust us" Government is exactly what the Republican Party has come to stand for, with the eager help of many Congressional Democrats. Under this "theory" of government, there is no need for oversight or limits on the power the President possesses because he is Good and you can trust him and his underlings to exercise those powers only for your Protection. Nobody needs to look over his shoulder or "check" what he's doing. We can place blind faith in our leader.

This is what Republicans previously pretended to believe about "Trust Us" Government, from Ronald Reagan's 1980 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention:

"Trust me" government is government that asks that we concentrate our hopes and dreams on one man; that we trust him to do what's best for us. My view of government places trust not in one person or one party, but in those values that transcend persons and parties. The trust is where it belongs -- in the people.

The excellent Rep. Rush Holt, who is one of the House's leading surveillance experts and a member of the Intelligence Committee, defied the House leadership today and opposed even the 15-day extension of the PAA, reminding his colleagues that even if it expires, a perfectly satisfactory eavesdropping framework called "FISA" is already in place, along with the PAA's authorization that any programs begun under it can continue for one year after expiration:



That all fell on deaf ears, of course. In 1997, the Clinton administration sought increased surveillance powers over Internet communications on the ground that such powers were necessary to stop terrorists and other criminals, who were using the Internet to do bad things. In particular, the Clinton administration wanted a law requiring that any encryption technology allow the federal Government to bypass it for spying purposes.

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Our stalwart small-government conservatives vehemently opposed those proposals, and the opposition was led by then-Sen. John Ashcroft, who argued in an Op-Ed:

J. Edgar Hoover would have loved this. The Clinton administration wants government to be able to read international computer communications -- financial transactions, personal e-mail and proprietary information sent abroad -- all in the name of national security. . . .

Not only would Big Brother be looming over the shoulders of international cybersurfers, he also threatens to render our state-of-the-art computer software engineers obsolete and unemployed.

Granted, the Internet could be used to commit crimes, and advanced encryption could disguise such activity. However, we do not provide the government with phone jacks outside our homes for unlimited wiretaps. Why, then, should we grant government the Orwellian capability to listen at will and in real time to our communications across the Web? . . . .

The protections of the Fourth Amendment are clear. The right to protection from unlawful searches is an indivisible American value. . . .

Every medium by which people communicate can be exploited by those with illegal or immoral intentions. Nevertheless, this is no reason to hand Big Brother the keys to unlock our e-mail diaries, open our ATM records or translate our international communications.

That's the same John Ashcroft, of course, who -- once he and his party were in power -- immediately discarded those "principles" and went on to approve and help implement far more invasive and unchecked surveillance programs than the ones which, when sought by Clinton, he scorned as Orwellian Big Brother tyranny.

But Republicans were unabashed in attempting to limit government power when Democrats controlled the White House. And does anyone doubt they will be so again if a Democrat is in the White House in 2009? Even when it's grossly hypocritical, that's how our adversarial system is actually supposed to work; one party opposing the other's unchecked power is an important form of checks and balances. One can be forgiven if one's recollection of this concept is rusty since it's been many, many years since we've seen it in action, and we're highly unlikely to be given a refresher course over the next 15 days.

After vowing yesterday to veto a 30-day extension of the Protect America Act, the White House and Congressional Republicans today agred to a 15-day extension. The Senate will now proceed to vote on the various amendments pending on the Cheney/Rockefeller bill and will then almost certainly vote in favor of that bill in some form, granting amnesty to lawbreaking telecoms and new warrantless eavesdropping powers to the President.

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There are really only two possible ways for all of this to be derailed: (1) the Senate passes one or more pending amendments which is unacceptable to the White House (the most likely candidates: Feinstein's amendment declaring that FISA is the "exclusive means" for eavesdropping and Feingold's amendment comeplling the disclosure to Congress of the secret FISA court rulings which the White House claims prompted the need for changes to FISA); or (2) the House stands firm with the bill it already passed and refuses to provide telecom amnesty and new warrantless eavesdropping powers. At this point, option (1) seems far more likely, as the Blue Dogs can single-handedly fulfill all the President's demands by abandoning voting (along with the Republicans) in favor of the Senate bill.


Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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