The company we keep

House Democratic leaders are working hard to enact legislation this week to replicate the eavesdropping policies of Russia and Zimbabwe.

Published June 17, 2008 12:32PM (EDT)

This article from Agence France-Presse, regarding UN chief Ban Ki-moon's call for all countries to eliminate travel restrictions on individuals with HIV, contains this passage:

According to UNAIDS, the global standard-bearer in the fight against HIV, 74 countries are subjecting HIV carriers to restrictive measures, including a mention of the disease on their passports.

Twelve among them -- Armenia, Colombia, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Sudan, the United States and Yemen -- barred entry to HIV carriers, often citing public health concerns and the high cost of treatment.

Even China recently removed itself from this lovely list by rescinding its ban. A few weeks ago, Andrew Sullivan had an Op-Ed in The Washington Post regarding the extraordinary fact that the U.S. is only one of 12 countries in the world to ban HIV-positive individuals from entering the country, and he described the heavy toll that ban exacts on people such as himself who are living with the virus (This week, the new ACLU blog is hosting a symposium on lesbian and gay issues that includes a discussion of these and related matters).

The HIV ban was the work of the Jesse Helms-led right-wing in 1993. Although Iran hasn't followed that policy, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen and Saddam Hussein's Iraq did. It's really baffling why the American Right is so obsessed with waging war against radical Islam and flamboyantly condemning other oppressive systems when they replicate and embrace so many of their most defining attributes.

Speaking of which, as Steny Hoyer and Congressional Democrats attempt this week to legalize George Bush's warrantless eavesdropping powers and immunize lawbreaking telecoms, it's worth noting the company we keep in that realm, too. In 2001, the U.S. State Department issued a truly amazing report on Russian human rights abusees, complaining that Russian "authorities continued to infringe on citizens' privacy rights." What was the basis of that complaint? The State Department said that Russian regulations that:

require Internet service providers and telecommunications companies to invest in equipment that enables the [Foreign Security Service] to monitor Internet traffic, telephone calls, and pagers without judicial approval caused serious concern.

"Serious concern." Worse, said our Report, in Russia "there appears to be no mechanism to prevent unauthorized [Government] access to Internet traffic without a warrant"!

In 2006, the State Department's report on Russia contained one of the most amazing passages I've read in all the time I've been writing about political issues. This is really -- honestly -- what the State Department said in condemning Russia. I highly recommend reading this a few times, especially in light of what the Congress is preparing to do this week:

The law states that officials may enter a private residence only in cases prescribed by federal law or on the basis of a judicial decision; however, authorities did not always observe these provisions.

The law permits the government to monitor correspondence, telephone conversations, and other means of communication only with judicial permission and prohibits the collection, storage, utilization, and dissemination of information about a person's private life without his consent. While these provisions were generally followed, problems remained. There were accounts of electronic surveillance by government officials and others without judicial permission, and of entry into residences and other premises by Moscow law enforcement without warrants. There were no reports of government action against officials who violated these safeguards.

What kind of monsters would spy on their own citizens without warrants even when the law requires warrants, and then not even punish those who broke the law? Russian Communist KGB thugs -- that's who would do such a horrible thing, our State Department complained in 2006. Note, too -- as our Congress attempts to legalize warrantless eavesdropping here -- that our State Department complained about Russia's surveillance abuses even though the law there permits such spying "only with judicial permission."

Finally, in August of 2007, Zimbabwe passed a law allowing its President to eavesdrop on telephone conversations with no warrants -- exactly what our Congress is about to do -- and this is what opposition leaders in that country said about that new law:

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe on Friday signed into law the controversial Interception of Communications Bill, which gives his government the authority to eavesdrop on phone and Internet communications and read physical mail.

The legislation has drawn outspoken opposition from the political opposition and civil society organizations as trampling on the civil rights of Zimbabweans.

Spokesman Nelson Chamisa of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change faction of Morgan Tsvangirai called it an addition to "the dictator's tool kit" . . .

Secretary General Welshman Ncube of the MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara called it a "final straw to the curtailment to the liberties of Zimbabweans."

Human rights lawyer Otto Saki told VOA that the law interferes and undermines the enjoyment of rights enshrined in the constitution and is a sign Mr. Mugabe wants to consolidate his power by "any means necessary or unnecessary."

But in reply to that uproar, the Mugabe government had what one must admit was a good response:

But Communications Minister Christopher Mushowe said Zimbabwe is not unique in the world in passing such legislation, citing electronic eavesdropping programs in the United States, the United Kingdom and South Africa, among other countries.

That's the company Steny Hoyer and the Blue Dogs in Congress are working hard this week to ensure we continue to keep, as they devote themselves to legalizing warrantless eavesdropping and immunizing corporations that broke the law. The details of the campaign to stop that will be posted here shortly.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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