Thank you, Edward Snowden: An End to General Warrants as so-called PATRIOT Act expires

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The US government behemoth dedicated to spying on us all in contravention of the Constitution will likely be only slightly inconvenienced by the expiration of the misnamed “PATRIOT Act”, forced by Sen. Rand Paul late Sunday night. But at least a few baby steps back toward democracy will be taken as a result.

The act hasn’t primarily been used for terrorism cases but for drug busts, which is to say, it is an enforcement mechanism for the liquor and pharmaceutical corporations that fear organic recreational drugs.

It should be underlined that these steps toward restoration of Americans’ privacy would not have occurred without the revelations of Edward Snowden about just how out of control the National Security Agency has been. Even senators like Ron Wyden of Oregon, who knew what the US government was doing in secret, could not openly blow the whistle because they would have instantly been arrested.

The bulk collection of information on whom millions of Americans call, how long they talk, and where they are when they’re doing it, and the storage of that information on government servers, will cease. Mind you, the government never got a warrant for any of this invasion of privacy. And a recent Federal court ruling found that anyway the Patriot Act didn’t authorize the degree of intrusive dragnets in which the government has been engaged. In essence, the executive claimed for itself a general warrant to go through our papers. The fourth amendment was crafted to make general warrants illegal. Even British courts under the monarchy in the 18th century pushed back against the crown’s assertion of a right to snoop into someone’s papers with no probable cause and no specific warrant. George W. Bush and Barack Obama claimed a power that even King George III did not have, and Americans kicked King George III off this continent for being too nosy and too grabby.

The government is going to try to make the telephone companies keep those records instead, for 18 months. The government will be able to query those records, but only with a specific warrant and a show of probable cause. We’ll be back to the year 2000, when we had more civil liberties.

There is no evidence that this massive domestic surveillance program rolled up a single terrorist plot, but plenty of evidence that it was misused.


Related video:

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Government Surveillance (HBO)

17 Responses

  1. An interesting note that drug busts are “an enforcement mechanism for the liquor and pharmaceutical corporations that fear organic recreational drugs.” It appears to me that this is as much a longstanding right wing war on the anti-VietnamWar generation. Although I find intoxicants uninteresting, I have seen no evidence of a national problem with recreational drugs, in excess of that due to alcohol. If such a war targeted only serious addictive substances, it would have some basis in fact, but it does not. The right-wing bias debunks the whole concept, as you have stated. It is a war on liberalism and the people, nothing less.

    • While many individual conservatives support decriminalization, the traditions that conservatives swear to uphold paint an ugly picture:

      1865-1933: The rise of the Prohibition movement in the US was strikingly entangled with bigotry towards Catholics and Jews. Perhaps Protestants were even attracted to the cause as a way to claim moral superiority towards those whose immigration they wanted to restrict. Racist stereotypes of the Irish corresponded to stereotypes of drinkers. Federal Prohibition arrived and became like a war of rural/small town Republicans and Southern Democrats against big city ethnic Democrats. The collapse of the laissez-faire ideology of the former in the Depression thus heralded the acceptance of the ethnics as “real” Americans and the demise of Prohibition.

      1935-present: Yup, it took 2 years for “Irish” alcohol to be replaced by “Negro” marijuana as the country’s new archvillain. Replace “black” for “ethnic” in the previous paragraph, and you’ve largely described the Drug War ever since.

      Which is why I think the Drug War will continue and loyal Republicans will keep supporting it even though they don’t like it. It isn’t the drug they’re fighting, it’s the invasion of their children by outside cultures that they stereotype as drug culture.

      • In 1978, the Michigan Legislature adopted mandatory life in prison without parole as part of its Controlled Substances Act as a penalty for possession of certain amounts of narcotics and a minimum of lifetime probation as a penalty for even the smallest amounts of cocaine or heroin being seized from a person.

        The law led to vast prison overcrowding as hundreds of convicted drug lifers had no parole available – many of these convicts were low-level couriers with no criminal records. As a result, violent offenders, such as child molesters and those convicted of certain homicidal offenses, were given early paroles and often went on to further violence.

        Tens of thousands of lifetime probationers convicted of mere drug possession clogged the courts’ dockets for decades until the courts simply stopped administering probation of drug possession convicts due to the prohibitive costs involved.

        Eventually, the Legislature amended the Controlled Substances Act to grant the Parole Board jurisdiction over these cases.

        Today courts in Michigan are beginning to implement probationary sentences under programs that treats convicted drug offenders with addiction issues as a disease requiring medical supervision and comprehensive treatment and counseling modalities. This approach is making inroads against recidivism among drug abusers under court jurisdiction. This is consistent with the American Medical Association’s view of addiction as a disease.

  2. A “few baby steps back toward democracy” is likely all that we will see. The oligarchy is happy to privatize surveillance as turn-key tyranny: then they don’t even have to get government cooperation. No, I think that democracy has at most one generation of last hope; it is gone forever in the US. No political party can or will stop tyranny.

    • I am far less sanguine: this is all pretty much eyewash. The NSA will bend the law and its intent to do what IT wants, because they are “the good guys” (in their eyes, which is all that matters). Rand’s theatrics and this particular sunset are really just symbolic of something irrelevant: they are only serving to make the people think something has been accomplished, as illustrated by the upbeat tone of this very posting, when nothing has really changed.

      For a realistic assessment about how meaningless this development really is, see the various coverages at Techdirt:

      link to

      • I’m not quite as cynical as you are. It isn’t all “eyewash.” A man doesn’t defy his party and filibuster for 10 1/2 hours for nothing. At the very least, Rand Paul’s “theatrics” have given the issue more awareness, and that means a lot for making change happen.

  3. Even senators like Ron Wyden of Oregon, who knew what the US government was doing in secret, could not openly blow the whistle because they would have instantly been arrested.

    But what about their oaths to uphold the Constitution? Similarly, as Dick Durbin revealed in a speech in the senate, the members of the senate intelligence (sic) committee were told a different version of the intelligence leading up to the Iraq war that contradicted the propaganda out of the Bush-Cheney white house, but his oath to keep these briefings secret overrode his oath to the Constitution. It doesn’t appear the senate is a place to look for profiles in courage. Which might help to explain why Snowden is in exile.

    On the other hand, given the prevailing indifference and, in some cases, hostility to the sacrifices made by whistleblowers such as Snowden, Kiriakou, Manning, etc. it would take an enormous measure of altruism with which few are endowed to make this ultimate sacrifice.

    • There’s a catch-22 here on constitutionality. If the government can assert that a thing’s a secret and all the injformation surrounding it is a secret and everyone who learns the secret through “channels” is subject to enormous penalties for revealing the secret, how can there be a lawsuit to profer information to a court which information would justify declaring the behavior (or the statute claimed as justification for the behavior) unconstitutional? Our courtts bpow to the government on “secrecy” matters as on “national security” matters — where a “matter” is a “national security” thing or a “securecy” thing if the government says so. Period. No recourse. I believe that the government, in assrting this stuff, doesn’t even have to put on a yellow-sticky saying “Trust me!”.

    • I think that if a congressperson was ever arrested for releasing classified information to the public, it would cause one the biggest political earthquakes in the history of American politics, assuming that the information was clearly of a kind that was important for the public to know and that the release was conducted in a manner that was not reckless. I think that such a congressperson would be celebrated as a hero by millions of people (although certainly, as well, reviled by others), and while their career would certainly thereupon take a new trajectory, I doubt that they would spend more than a brief, symbolic duration of time in prison. If anybody tried to keep the congressperson imprisoned for longer than that, even the boot-licking lackeys of the mainstream media would not be able to resist covering it 24/7. There might be non-stop live news coverage outside the prison. The congressperson’s persecutors would end up looking absolutely terrible in the public eye. It might even help the congressperson’s political career, assuming that they were not legally barred from politics. Americans, at least the ones who follow politics at all, have been hoping for years to see a national politician who is willing to go off the script in a meaningful way.

      It would certainly be interesting to see. If somebody in Congress indeed has access to information that is worth releasing, perhaps one day somebody will go ahead and take that risk.

      • the courage of Leo J Ryan certainly launched his congressional career onto a new trajectory.
        He was the last courageous congressperson.

    • Daniel Ellsberg credits Edward Snowden with catalysing US surveillance reform: Prominent US whistleblowers applaud Snowden’s Patriot Act revelation for inciting Congress to take action, though they doubt he can ever return to the US – link to

      but as far as the Obama Administration is concerned

      Charges against Edward Snowden stand, despite telephone surveillance ban: The former NSA contractor revealed the banned surveillance programme, but an Obama administration spokesman says they will not review his charges by Dan Roberts – link to

      Apparently, true patriotism is in the eye of the beholder

      • Beings much, if not all, of the information collected was amassed using authorities either not authorized by existing law or by using convoluted legislation intentionally designed to circumscribe existing legal prohibition against government intelligence agencies engaging in domestic spying, dating back more than 60 years, why should any of the fruits of such secret illegal government activity be retained at all; especially at the continued expense of the public’s privacy and treasure?
        “Work is love made visible.” KG
        As Usual,

    • The older emails they can just shuttle over to the British, where a quickly written subroutine can then let them access it indirectly. You know the respect these guys have for the letter of the law, let alone its intent.

      This particular episode is meaningless in itself. What stands to hopefully make a difference on the margin is the awareness of what this all portends, once it fully sinks into the consciousness of supranational elites outside the beltway.

  4. Just as the TPP is kept hidden from Congress, so is the actual extent of illegal spying. Congress is a nuisance and can’t be trusted with “important” stuff.
    ANYONE who believes ANYTHING will be curtailed or that ANY information already collected will be shredded has not been paying attention and does not understand how fascists work.

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