By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Obama’s secret war on civil liberties

Remember Section 215? It was a notorious provision of the USA Patriot Act, renewed on Thursday, that allowed the government to snoop on what library books you’d borrowed, what videos you’d rented, your medical records — anything, really, if investigators thought it might have something to do with terrorism, no matter how tangential.

I wrote about it for the Boston Phoenix in 2003 as an example of the then-budding excesses of the Bush-Cheney years.

Well, Section 215 is back — not that it ever went away. Charlie Savage reports in today’s New York Times that two Democratic senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, have accused the Obama administration of using Section 215 for purposes not intended by Congress. Then-senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, raised similar alarms in 2009.

The senators know what the White House is up to because they were privy to secret testimony. But, legally, under Senate rules, they can’t reveal what they learned. Thus they have demanded that the White House come clean with the public. “Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out,” Udall is quoted as saying.

Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute recently described Section 215 in an interview with Salon:

It allows investigators to get an order from the FISA court permitting them to compel the production of any tangible thing that is relevant to an investigation. It’s pretty unlimited in scope. Any record or other thing that pertains to a suspected agent of a foreign power or someone in contact with them is under the law considered to be “presumptively relevant.” That means the judge has no discretion to deny such requests. The records don’t have to belong to anyone who is thought to be guilty of anything.

“FISA,” you may recall, is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. At the height of the Bush years, the White House didn’t even bother with the niceties of going to a FISA court before ordering wiretaps. But as Sanchez notes, the FISA provision isn’t much more than a fig leaf anyway.

Which reminds me: The Obama Justice Department recently issued a subpoena ordering James Risen, one of the New York Times reporters who broke the story about the Bush administration’s secret wiretaps, to reveal his confidential sources.

President Obama’s approach to civil liberties has been similar to that of his predecessors: for them when convenient, against them when upholding our rights would interfere with his exercise of untrammeled executive power. Last year, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero pronounced himself to be “disgusted” with Obama’s civil-rights record.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney remain outliers because of their embrace of torture, secret rendition and the like. But, otherwise, Obama fits into a long pattern of presidents whose actions on civil liberties are very different from their pious words.

I found the photo at a blog called the Bourgeois Librarian. I do not know its provenance.

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  1. L.K. Collins

    A more appropriate rendering is:

    Obama fits into a long pattern of presidents whose actions are very different from their pious words.

    How’s the hopey changey bit going Dan? There were people cautioning a more measured view in 2008, but I guess you have to experience it to know how truly taken in you were.

    Does your criticism of the Obama administration have a racist component?

    Seems as though it could given some of the logic you have used in the past to tar and feather others…

  2. Mike Benedict

    Better watch out, L.K.: the government knows that hutch you’re trying to pass off as an antique Chippendale actually came from Ikea.

  3. L.K. Collins

    Ah, our other resident racist heard from with his usual personal attack.

    You’ll never convince people you are grown up, Mikey, until you take the pacifier out of your mouth.

  4. L.K. Collins

    p.s. Thomas Chippendale was not in the hutch business. But if you knew anything more about fine craftsmanship, you would know that. Ikea IS the place for you, Mikey. Fits your style, taste and quality requirements perfectly.

  5. Stephen Stein

    I’ll tell you one thing, if you do a Google image search for “librarian” the results are definitely NOT safe for work! 🙂

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Stephen: I did. And you are correct!

  6. Mike Benedict

    Ahh, L.K., why so angry? Poor guy. Don’t be such a caricature of the old man from a Beckett novella.

  7. L.K. Collins

    Touch a nerve, did I Mikie? Ikea too much of a step up for you?

  8. Mike Benedict

    Your obsession with me is cute to a point, L.K. Then it just gets as disturbing as your ideology.

  9. Mike Rice

    Speaking of librarians, in my sleepy little town with a year-round population of 3,142 the librarian at the elementary school, which has an enrollment of about two hundred and fifty students, makes just under $82K per year not including 60% of her health-insurance being paid for along with a 3% automatic, unreviewed annual salary increase topped off with a pension all provided for by the taxpayers. Is this normal in the real world or am I living in Never-Neverland?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike Rice: My wife is the librarian in an elementary school. I would say it’s not even remotely normal.

  10. L.K. Collins

    Brilliant, Mikie, BRILLIANT.

    What that is what we have come to expect from you.

    Always a victim.

  11. Mike Rice

    Thanks Dan, I thought so. I live in Wellfleet where over 72% of the property tax revenue is derived from second home owners who have absolutely no say in town government.

    This place gives a profound meaning to the adage “It’s easy to spend other people’s money.”

  12. Nancy Mades

    @ Mike Rice and Dan Kennedy…The librarian at my school also makes about $80,000, but she had to earn a master’s degree and continue (on her own time and often, expense)to take professional development classes to keep her job, teaches classes in addition to running the library, and is in, I believe, her 27th. year as a teacher/librarian. First year teachers/librarians do not make $80,000.

    Before you condemn your school librarian as another over-paid hack, find out exactly what her qualifications are, what she does (i.e. teaches student in addition to running the library), and how long she’s dedicated her professional life to the children of your community.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Nancy and @Mike: Yes, on reflection, I would have to say that $80,000 isn’t necessarily outrageous for a teacher/librarian at the top of the scale. I should have mentioned that my wife is a first-year librarian in a working-class city. And though your town’s population may be small, the school is large. Finally, I assume you’re writing from Cape Cod, which is not exactly a bastion of affordable housing.

  13. Mike Rice

    @Nancy: I didn’t say that our elementary school librarian is a hack, I questioned if her salary is relative to what others are making in this field. Furthermore, I’ve learned that the student enrollment in our elementary school is one hundred and thirty one students. In my town the sad reality is that many but not all of this town’s employees are better off financially than a great many of the year-round taxpayers paying their salaries. It’s not wrong but to my way of thinking it’s unfair.

    Also, my sister-in-law who has a Master’s Degree in Special Education and teaches in N.H. doesn’t even come close to making $80K a year. She’s retiring next year.

    Due to this country’s current fiscal problems(putting it mildly)federal workers didn’t get a pay increase this year. Neither did Social Security recipients. I’m wondering why municipal workers in my town did.

    You’re right Dan, Cape Cod isn’t a bastion of affordable housing, whether one buys or rents, especially the lower Cape and that’s exactly why the school enrollment in this area, including the regional high school, has dropped dramatically over the past ten years. Many people in the private sector Capewide can no longer afford to live here. The exodus continues. Rising property taxes are a big part of the problem.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: Lot of chicken-and-egg to consider here, but you’re not going to be able to have a school librarian if she can’t afford to live within commuting distance.

  14. Mike Rice

    I understand Dan. I’ll make this quick, last year Provincetown High School closed, not enough students. With a continuing declining enrollment in our school system, I’m wondering how many years it will be until the elementary school in my town closes as well. Families can’t afford to live here. A majority of those who work for the town can.

  15. Michael Corcoran

    The Obama record on civil liberties has been awful from the get-go. I recall the ACLU chief saying he was “disgusted” by Obama. Pretty strong words.

  16. Mike Benedict

    The ACLU is, as a rule, disgusted with all government. I’m not saying they don’t have a point here, but if the ACLU ever found a reason to be happy, it would be out of business.

  17. Michael Corcoran

    Mike Benedict,

    That may be true about the ACLU, but still, those words seem to have been chosen carefully to be as combative as possible. And it seems the ACLU is not only angered by Obama, but probably a little surprised at just how bad his civil liberties record is.

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