Sunday, October 02, 2005

Government Secrecy

Do you have a right to privacy? As is the case with the “separation of church and state,” a right to privacy is not directly mentioned in the Constitution. However, precedent has been established by the U.S. Supreme Court recognizing the individual right to privacy in general. Historically, our court system has allowed a breach of that right to privacy in cases involving criminal investigations, and more recently terrorism suspects. An example of such an exception to privacy is the Patriot Act of 2001. There are many arguments against the USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, because many of its statutes appear to cross that thin line between privacy rights and a compelling government interest to protect the citizenry. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that seeks to protect civil liberties such as the right to privacy, and has been involved in lawsuits against the government on behalf of individuals or groups of individuals who rights may have been violated, especially concerning this particular law.

Since September 11, as is usually the case in times of war, especially an open ended one, we have seen a general decline in the individual right to privacy and an increase in the government’s “right” to privacy, or more accurately known as secrecy. The National Security Agency (NSA), and the newly formed Department of Homeland Security have enjoyed expanded powers granted by the courts to prevent another terrorist act on our soil, even though there is no way of knowing when or how such an event will occur, making a circumvention unlikely. Furthermore, these broad powers granted to the federal government and law enforcement agencies in the name of antiterrorism have contributed to the increase in search and seizures of records previously not available and formerly considered private information, such as library and medical records. Patriot Act II does not have the provision that allows the seizure of library records, but such an overall trend toward reduced individual privacy is disturbing and could be indicative of a “Big Brother” scenario, fictionalized in George Orwell’s novel “1984”, or a similar situation to the real life “Red Scare” of the 1950s at the height of McCarthyism.

Even the protection provided by the Miranda warning has seen some erosion in recent years, particularly thanks to opinions offered by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist over the years, particularly in 2000 as summarized in an article for “The Economist” publication in which he characterized the rights as being almost quaint and unnecessary because of how embedded in the culture it had become. Law enforcement can now question suspects in many cases without Mirandizing them first. Other possible government encroachments upon individual rights include suspending the writ of habeas corpus in times of war, and of course the declaration of martial law. In these situations, the government does not need to give specific reasons for invoking these “privileges,” even in the absence of an emergency.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966, followed by the Privacy Act of 1974, were steps taken by legislators, pressured by their constituents, to protect the public from unnecessary government secrecy and to compel the release of any information no longer deemed worthy of classified status by the courts. Unfortunately, there have been many redactions and exemptions made over the years, and little information is being released by the FBI, CIA, or the President. A loophole in the law actually grants executive privilege to the President to classify any information he deems appropriate for national security purposes. Executive orders have become a convenient tool for the President to keep information out of the public with little possibility of a remedy. For example, President Bush issued Executive Order 13233 authored by current Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzalez in November 2001 which restricted all access to the records of former presidents.

The most notable secret kept by this Administration is the details of the Energy Task Force led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who was recommended for the task by former Enron CEO Ken Lay. Public pressure after the collapse of Enron resulted in a limited release of documents, but much of them remain classified. What is apparent in six task force meetings with Enron executives is that the primary agenda was to secure more sources of energy from foreign sources of oil. No effort was made to develop a plan for alternative energy sources because it would not serve the neoconservative agenda to gain a foothold in the Middle East, particularly Iraq, prior to September 11, 2001. Don't believe me? Check out the following links for information on the neocon think tank "Project for the New American Century" first established in 1997:

Another example of government infringement on the rights of the private citizen is the “Eminent Domain” clause found in the Fifth Amendment. Basically the government is allowed to seize private property for “public use” in exchange for fair compensation. Recently, this “right” was expanded to include “commercial use,” for municipal development. Local governments are now allowed to force private property owners to sell for the purpose of economic development, most likely a commercial business. This ruling has been viewed as especially egregious to many states, as many have passed their own legislation in the intervening months to protect property owners from such seizures. This grassroots populist movement is a positive sign that the citizens are concerned about their individual rights in the face of government encroachment on behalf of commercial interests.

The Terry Shiavo case is yet another example of government interference or influence, in particular a family decision The Libertarian perspective looks at such “right to die/life” cases, along with abortion rights, to be the ultimate example of individual privacy having been breached by government in the form of legislation that seeks to make those decisions for them in spite of the personal beliefs of the individuals directly involved. The Supreme Court should stay out of such personal and private issues out of respect of individual or family autonomy. Ironically, the conservatives on Capitol Hill were leading the fight to get the government involved in what was strictly a private family matter. One of the few values I personally share with conservatives is the rights of the individual to be free from government interference in such matters, but instead the Republican Party betrayed one of their core philosophies of “small” government and individual autonomy in favor of the ideology preached by the social conservative Christian Coalition to preserve life at all costs, regardless of their medical condition, or wishes of the legal guardian and the family. Instead, sides were taken by the government and the nation was drawn into what is a purely private internal family dispute. The media was used by both sides to frame the debate and spin the issues in their favor. In the end, the autopsy provided the facts that dispelled some of the claims made by the “right to life” crowd, proving she was indeed in a persistent vegetative state. Yet the debate rages on.

Conservatives love to deride certain members of the courts of being “activist judges” who impose an interpretation of the law outside of the strict constructionist view of the constitution. Now many of these same conservatives were asking the federal courts to settle a family case previously decided by the lower state courts. This demonstrates how much the Republican Party has been completely overrun by social conservatives and the Christian Coalition, which has a very specific agenda that has little to due with some of our core democratic values, and in fact comes into conflict with it. Their strict interpretation of the Christian Bible, for example, by Evangelical Southern Baptists like Jerry Falwell and his followers, is being imposed onto interpretation of constitutional law in order to move the country towards a quasi-theocratic government ruled by the likes of Pat Robertson, who failed in his bid to be the party’s nominee for president in 1988. The fact is most of us recognize the progressive movement as inevitable and inherent to a democracy, otherwise we would not be free, but instead be living under a theocracy not dissimilar in principle to the former Taliban regime of Afghanistan. After all, slavery, women’s suffrage, and other minority civil rights would never have been achieved without a vibrant progressive debate.

To summarize, the Christian right political movement is steering the Republican base away from the traditional conservative ideal of “smaller” government. Instead under this regime we have actually seen an expansion of government involvement in both domestic and foreign affairs. One need not look any further than the Bush record of exactly zero vetoes of congressional spending bills, the creation of a new cabinet position called Homeland Security, the appointment of a Intelligence Czar to oversee all related agencies, the war in Iraq , and executive orders and privileges invoked to conceal access to information, therefore expanding government secrecy. The results of this “compassionate conservative” agenda have included reduced government transparency and accountability, in addition to an expanded federal bureaucracy. Along with a deterioration of individual liberties of privacy or autonomy comes an increase in government secrecy and over dependency on government institutions. This combination is bad for democracy and only further deepens the political apathy and cynicism already rampant among the future leaders of this country, including myself.

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