America’s Post-9/11 Surveillance Authorities Were Inevitably Turned Against Its Own Citizens
In less than two months after terrorists brought down the Twin Towers, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act, granting federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies expanded authorities to engage in surveillance to hunt down suspected terrorists.
The bill sailed through Congress. The House of Representatives voted 357-66 to pass it. Then-Rep. Ron Paul (R–Texas) was one of only three Republicans to oppose it. In the Senate, only one senator, Russ Feingold (D–Wis.), voted against it.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Feingold warned against compromising our own civil liberties as we pursued Osama bin Laden and others who might mean Americans harm. He took note of the many, many times in America’s history where the government chose security over liberty and the results were not pretty:
There have been periods in our nation’s history when civil liberties have taken a back seat to what appeared at the time to be the legitimate exigencies of war. Our national consciousness still bears the stain and the scars of those events: The Alien and Sedition Acts, the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the internment of Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans during World War II, the blacklisting of supposed communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era, and the surveillance and harassment of antiwar protesters, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the Vietnam War. We must not allow these pieces of our past to become prologue.
Twenty years after the Sept. 11 attacks, we can see now that Feingold’s warnings were on point (as were many warnings by many civil liberties experts). The USA PATRIOT Act ultimately led to a massive federal campaign of internal domestic surveillance that, when revealed, outraged many Americans even as government officials attempted to downplay and mislead citizens about what was happening.
Edward Snowden became a household name for good reason. In 2013, Snowden, a military intelligence contractor, leaked classified documents showing how the National Security Agency (NSA) was using the authorities of the USA PATRIOT Act to collect massive reams of communication data not just from suspected terrorists but from millions of Americans as well. Government officials (when they weren’t lying to Congress about the existence of the program) downplayed what the NSA was doing. President Barack Obama responded to the outrage by insisting, “Nobody was listening to your phone calls.”
But what the government was doing was collecting lots and lots of information about everything else related to those calls. The term “metadata” slid into the popular lexicon. Metadata refers to all the information about a communication outside of the actual contents of it—who people call, when, and where they are when they do so. One of the lessons Americans learned about all this domestic surveillance was how easy it is—as communications technology over the past two decades turned our phones and personal d
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