New York Times Pushes False Notion Both Sides of Patriot Act Debate Are Wrong
An analysis published in the New York Times falsely equates arguments for and against extending provisions of the PATRIOT Act, making it seem as if those against extension are just as wrong as those pushing to preserve government spying powers.
“There is little evidence in the history of the expiring Patriot Act powers to bolster the arguments that either supporters or opponents are making,” according to a description of the analysis written by Charlie Savage.
With the headline, “Reality Checks in Debate Over Surveillance Laws,” it appropriately calls out Republican senators like Tom Cotton, who have claimed a lapse in “this critical tool would lead to attacks.” Savage notes that studies and testimony have both shown that in the program’s existence zero terrorist attacks have been thwarted.
However, in the next paragraphs, Savage casts opponents of extending the provisions as individuals who are comparably wrong:
At the same time, proponents of ending the program say it poses risks to Americans’ private lives, by permitting the government to know who has been calling psychiatrists or political groups, for example. But despite the discovery of technical violations of the rules several years ago, no evidence has emerged that the program has been misused for political or personal gain. As a result, the privacy-minded critics have had to couch their warnings in hypothetical terms.
“Even if we stipulate for purposes of this discussion that no one within the N.S.A. is currently abusing this program for nefarious political purposes,” Senator Rand Paul, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, said in a filibuster-style floor speech last week, “can we say we are certain that will always be the case? Who is to say what might happen one year from now, two years from now, five years, 10 years or 15 years from now?”
While Savage may consider this to be equal to fear mongering about what will happen if spying powers are curtailed, “privacy-minded” opponents of the PATRIOT Act are not relying on the same hyperbole.
The only example Savage cites is very restrained and calculated. It is based on a concern that history could repeat itself because the country once experienced what it was like to have a domestic security state turned against citizens decades ago when J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director. And, in the example, Paul is making no claims about abuse for personal or political gain that cannot be backed up.
On the contrary, none of the supporters of the Patriot Act spying powers are as measured in their arguments. Not even officials from President Barack Obama’s administration are as level-headed in their rhetoric.
Administration officials have had a reporter from the Times print anonymous statements from them, one which suggests critics are playing “national security Russian roulette.” The administration maintains opponents are being “grossly irresponsible” because they want to have a debate and reform spying powers in a manner that much of the country actually supports.
Furthermore, it is inaccurate—and, at best, misleading—to write in any analysis that there is “no evidence” that “the program has been misused for political or personal gain.”
When Obama made a similar suggestion in a speech in January 2014, journalist Marcy Wheeler outlined key examples of abuse that were known to have taken place.
“The NSA spied on the porn and phone sex habits of ideological opponents, including those with no significant ties to extremists, and including a US person,” Wheeler highlighted. “According to the NSA in 2009, it had a program similar to Project Minaret — the tracking of anti-war opponents in the 1970s — in which it spied on people in the US in the guise of counterterrorism without approval. We still don’t have details of this abuse.”
Wheeler additionally pointed out that the NSA collected Internet metadata “that qualified as content” until 2009, despite the fact that this was identified as an abuse of power in 2004.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who brought the country to this moment where Patriot Act powers might expire, revealed the NSA has infiltrated Google and Yahoo data centers to steal users’ data.
A recently released Justice Department inspector general report also showed for seven years the FBI defied a law that was supposed to restrict how business records sought under the PATRIOT Act were accessed—a pretty flagrant abuse of power.
Is none of this evidence of abuse for personal or political gain? Isn’t someone benefiting from not following guidelines or the law?
On October 9, 2008, ABC News reported hundreds of US citizens overseas had been “eavesdropped on as they called friends and family back home, according to two former military intercept operators” at an NSA center in Fort Gordon, Georgia.
Adrienne Kinne, a US Army reserves Arab linguist who was assigned to a “special military program” at NSA’s Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003, said US military officers, American journalists and American aide workers were “routinely” having their calls “collected” when they called their offices or homes in the US.
This same ABC News report suggested that NSA employees were sharing “salacious or tantalizing phone calls” that contained “good phone sex” or “pillow talk.” More recently, in 2013, there was further evidence that came to light on how NSA officers abuse their access to collected data to pursue love interests.
Is this not evidence of spying powers being used for personal and political gain within an agency?
There is also the fact that the Justice Department inspector general has another report, which has not been made public. It details the FBI’s use of pen register and trap and trace devices under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act from 2007 to 2009. It possibly describes instances of abuse, which could inform discussion about expiring provisions of the PATRIOT Act.
Only a tiny fraction of Savage’s analysis is spent on the flawed notion that privacy or civil liberties advocates have been wrong in their arguments about the potential for abuse. Around ninety percent of the analysis focuses attention on PATRIOT Act supporters, which should be the case. But, in framing the analysis as if both sides are incorrect, Savage promotes this idea that there is some balance (perhaps, so Savage and the Times can claim the analysis was “objective”).
Both sides are not equally wrong, and any analysis that inappropriately suggests some balance is merely giving citizens an excuse to tune out or ignore the debate happening in Congress.
The evidence clearly demonstrates, based off documents from Snowden, declassified inspector general reports, studies and other testimony, that advocates for spying powers have nothing but fear to convince the public that the expiring PATRIOT Act provisions must be continued. Fear and lies.
Privacy advocates have no need to fabricate claims about past, present or future abuse. They can simply continue to react and respond, as surveillance proponents flail about madly trying to protect security state powers. That may be enough to end the provisions once and for all.