Monday, August 30, 2004

What's at stake?

As we go into the Republican National Convention, and a quarter of a million people protest (peacefully!) in the streets, I would like to take a moment to contemplate exactly what's at stake in this election.

It can all be summarized in this jewel of a new story.

The Patriot Act creates the concept of a "National Security Letter," which is essentially a subpoena issued by the FBI without any judicial branch oversight whatsoever. An FBI agent can write a letter demanding private records, and state that the information is needed for a "national security" investigation, and that's all there is to it. The Patriot Act strictly forbids any person who receives such a letter from disclosing the fact that they received that letter. Not only does this create massive logistical problems in the real world, it also has the effect of seriously impeding, say, any legal challenge to those letters. If you want to challenge the "National Security Letter" as improper or invalid, you still cannot reveal the fact that you have received one.

The ACLU has filed court cases challenging the Patriot Act for being, inter alia, a tool of fascist oppression. (My words, not theirs.) They are specifically challenging the "National Security Letter" procedure. Because of the "gag order" inherent in the very statute they are trying to overturn, the Justice Department has been permitted to redact portions of the ACLU's briefs to protect "national security." For instance, the Justice Department had redacted any mention of what the ACLU's client did for a living -- "provides a number of internet related services for its clients" including web-accessible storage space, e-mail and access to the Net.

Got all that so far?

The ACLU wrote a letter to the district court challenging several of the Justice Department's redactions. They wanted the court to review the excessive and unjustifiable redactions. But -- you guessed it -- they had to specify what sections were unjustifiable.

So the Justice Department redacted the letter, too. And when it took out the black pen, it cut out the following:

"The danger to political dissent is acute where the Government attempts to act under so vague a concept as the power to protect 'domestic security.' Given the difficulty of defining the domestic security interest, the danger of abuse in acting to protect that interest becomes apparent."

Surely this is not "critical national security information," you say. Surely this is merely rhetoric. There couldn't be any justification for redacting rhetoric? Wouldn't that be the suppression of viewpoints that challenge the government?

It gets better.

That quote is a direct quote from a Supreme Court opinion. It was the parenthetical that followed "See also United States v. United States District Court for the Eastern District of Mich., 407 U.S. 297, 314 (1972)"

And that's what's at stake. The Bush Justice Department believes that it has the right to edit out portions of Supreme Court decisions that support the principles of liberty over those of oppression. It's so small, so blithe, that it makes a poetic representation of everything that the Patriot Act and the Bush Justice Department has become.

The district judge forced the Justice Department to "un-redact" several portions of the briefs and letter, but for a moment the mask slipped. Remember, the whole point of the Patriot Act is to allow the Justice Department to avoid the meddlesome interference of the judiciary -- the very judiciary that stopped the Justice Department this time. If the ACLU had failed in its judicial challenge, we would never know about the Justice Department's oppression because the Patriot Act would forbid them from telling anyone what had happened. How often has it happened in the past? How often will it happen in the future?

So, that's what's at stake.

If you pull the elephant lever in November, you are standing up and saying this behavior is acceptable.

If you pull the Nader lever, you are standing up and saying this behavior is acceptable.

If you don't vote, you are standing up and saying this behavior is acceptable.

"'There is more than one kind of freedom,' said Aunt Lydia. 'Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it.'" -- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

 9:24 AM

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