Frances Madeson

The FBI May Have the Inside Scoop on You

Thanks to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine's March 9 audit report detailing the FBI's handling of expanded surveillance powers granted under the USA PATRIOT Act, subsequent media reports and congressional hearings called to probe the findings, we now know that the FBI's been doing the same "heckuva job" with respect to information gathering and storage characteristic of other sectors of the Bush administration.

Though the toothpaste is out of the tube, I wonder if people generally grasp the enormity of the damage done. There is in existence an electronic database with over a half-billion records containing information collected via extrajudicial requests made in National Security Letters, the majority of which pertain to U.S. citizens. Your banking and credit activities, telephone and internet usage records, insurance policies, post office box rental, and car, boat and home ownership records could already be in the FBI's Investigative Data Warehouse. If so, no one need inform you. If the information is incorrect, there's no way to fix it. It is shared among 10,000 government employees at multiple agencies and is stored for 20 years even if you have no connection whatsoever to a crime. In fact, only 65 convictions correlated to information obtained by the FBI from over 143,000 NSL demands made from 2003 to 2005.

When the Patriot Act was reauthorized in March 2006, I asked my senators why they voted in favor of such obviously heinous legislation. Schumer's office promptly sent an auto-reply message thanking me for my inquiry. "It makes me proud to know that my constituents take an active role in our government by corresponding with me, and I look forward to responding to your concerns in greater detail." Fifteen months later, that would make two of us.

In August 2006, Sen. Clinton sent a two-page letter describing her efforts to improve the act with stronger citizen safeguards. "Ultimately, the Congress reached a bipartisan reauthorization compromise. I voted in favor of this reauthorization compromise, although I did so with some reluctance. The compromise does not address all of my concerns regarding the protection of civil liberties and the sensible allocation of homeland security funds. However, when measured against the original Patriot Act, the compromise is a positive step forward, and so I supported it." (Sigh.)

Lack of congressional oversight contributed to this horror show and without sustained citizen pressure we can only expect more of the same. Fortunately, on April 11 a letter signed by 69 courageous citizen organizations representing millions of Americans was sent to Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid providing a curative roadmap for reform. (I found the text on the website, but perhaps I missed the congressional leaders' written response outlining their timeline for addressing these issues?) On April 18 the ACLU and other privacy groups met with the FBI to express the view that the self-corrective measures being proposed were insufficient to the task. They could have saved the carfare. On May 1 citizen groups were back testifying before the Senate Select Subcommittee on Intelligence, protesting administration-proposed amendments to "modernize" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a euphemism Orwell would have been proud to coin, in which "modernize" actually means pardon wrongdoing and gut judicial checks on more government surveillance of us.

We look to Congress hoping it will soon find remedies. While days, weeks and now months have passed since the issuance of the inspector general's audit report, how many thousands more NSLs have been delivered accompanied by their repugnant gag orders? How many additional unjustifiable intrusions into our privacy will be tolerated by our representatives in Washington? Combined with NSA illegal wiretapping, everexpanding definitions of "domestic terrorism" and initiatives to promote national identity cards, a truly horrifying and wholly un-American landscape is on the immediate horizon.

None of this is inevitable; it happens only if we let it happen. The more this administration and their would-be successors celebrate the savagery of Guantanamo and call for its expansion (Romney), sanction waterboarding (Giuliani) and lay Baghdadian waste to our desire for an enduring American democracy, the more we must and will morph from our mundane selves into mini-Jeffersons and Betsy Rosses stitching our homespun flags and stoking the fires of liberty.

Personally, I'm resolute. I'm not a child, slave or extra in their video game fantasies. I'm a grown American woman -- hale, hearty and up for this fight for my nation's soul -- and try as they will to debase that, it still means something beautiful to me.

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