|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
Congress is moving to curb some of the police powers it gave the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, including imposing new restrictions on the FBI's access to private phone and financial records.
A budding House-Senate deal on the expiring USA Patriot Act includes new limits on federal law enforcement powers and rejects the Bush administration's request to grant the FBI authority to get administrative subpoenas for wiretaps and other covert devices without a judge's approval.
Even with the changes, however, every part of the law set to expire Dec. 31 would be reauthorized and most of those provisions would become permanent.
Under the agreement, for the first time since the act became law, judges would get the authority to reject national security letters giving the government secret access to people's phone and e-mail records, financial data and favorite Internet sites.
Holders of such information — such as banks and Internet providers — could challenge the letters in court for the first time, said congressional aides involved in merging separate, earlier-passed House and Senate bills reauthorizing the expiring Patriot Act.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because the panel has not begun deliberations.
Under the 2001 law, the FBI reportedly has been issuing about 30,000 national security letters annually, a hundred-fold increase since the 1970s, when they first came into existence under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Last year, a federal judge in New York struck down the national security letter statute as unconstitutional because he said the law did not permit legal challenges to the letters or a gag rule on recipients of the letters. The administration has appealed.
Civil libertarians lauded the deal's preliminary terms, saying recent accounts of the FBI's aggressive use of national security letters have lent credibility to their call for caution.
"Without those checks and balances, there will be abuses," said former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., of Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances.
The Bush administration contends there have been no abuses.
"In the four years since the passage of the USA Patriot Act there has not been a single verified abuse of the act's provisions, including in the department's own inspector general's report to Congress," said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
According to a printout from a computer controlled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice, I am an enemy of the state.
The printout, shown to me recently by a friend who works for Justice, identifies me by a long, multi-digit number, lists my date of birth, place of birth, social security number and contains more than 100 pages documenting what the Bureau and the Bush Administration consider to be my threats to the security of the United States of America.
It lists where I sent to school, the name and address of the first wife that I had been told was dead but who is alive and well and living in Montana, background information on my current wife and details on my service to my country that I haven’t even revealed to my wife or my family.
Although the file finds no criminal activity by me or members of my immediate family, it remains open because I am a “person of interest” who has “written and promoted opinions that are contrary to the government of the United States of America.”
And it will remain active because the government of the United States, under the far-reaching provisions of the USA Patriot Act, can compile and retain such information on any American citizen. That act gives the FBI the authority to collect intimate details about anyone, even those not suspected of any wrongdoing.
My file begins on September 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. A Marine guard standing post at the Navy Yard in Washington jotted down the license number of my Jeep Wrangler after I was spotted taking pictures of armed guards at the locked-down military facility.
That night, I found a card stuffed under my door from Agent John Ryan of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. I chuckled at the time because the lead character in Tom Clancy’s novels is named John P. Ryan.
I called Agent Ryan the next day. He wanted to know what the hell I was doing taking photos of a military facility. I explained that I was a journalist and taking pictures was what I did for a living. I directed him to a web site where he could find some of the photos I shot of the Navy Yard’s side gate on that day. He asked for additional information, including date of birth and social security number, which I provided, and then hung up.
I thought the matter was dead until a few weeks ago when an old friend from Washington called, said he was in the area, and suggested lunch. At lunch, he showed me the 100-plus pages of the file on me that grew out of that first encounter with Agent Ryan of NCIS.
“Much of this information was gathered through what we call ‘national security letters,’” he said. “It allows us to gather information from a variety of sources.”
According to my file, the banks where I have both business and checking accounts have been forced to turn over all records of my transactions, as have every company where I have a charge account or credit card. They’ve perused my book borrowing habits from libraries in Arlington and Floyd Counties as well as studied what television shows I watch on the Tivos in my house. They know I belong to the National Rifle Association, the National Press Photographers Association and other professional groups. They know I attend meetings of Alcoholic Anonymous on a regular basis and the file notes that my “pattern of spending” shows no purchase of “alcohol-related products” since the file was opened in 2001.
In the past, when information collected on an American citizen failed to turn up any criminal activity, FBI policy called for such information to be destroyed.
But President George W. Bush in 2003 reversed that long-standing policy and ordered the bureau and other federal agencies to not only keep that information but place it in government databases that can be accessed by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
In October, Bush also signed Executive Order 13388 which expands access to those databases to “appropriate private sector entities” although the order does not explain what those entities might be. In addition, the Bush Administration has successfully blocked legislation and legal actions that have tried to stop the expansion of spying and gathering of information on Americans.