The fearmongers have been working overtime this summer.

From Men in Black to mysterious Malaysian airliners; from Donetsk to Raqqa, Ferguson to Gaza, Rio to the streets of the Mission, we’ve had it all: invasions, be-headings, relentless drought, combat-ready cops, massacres, and a killer virus on the loose.

It was not the Summer of Love.

The score?

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week showed public fears of American vulnerability to a terrorist attack at its highest level since 9/11.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed 91 percent of people polled view the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS, or ISIL) as a “serious” threat to the United States’ “vital interests;” 59 percent thought the threat “very serious.”

(Apparently I am one of only 9 percent of Americans who don’t know what are the United States’ “vital interests.”)

And in a poll last week from the Pew Research Center for People and Press, 50 percent of people polled said they are more concerned that the government’s anti-terrorism policies have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country, while only 35 percent said they are concerned the government was going too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties.

In July of 2013, the month of the Snowden documents were first made public, the numbers were almost exactly the opposite.

The National Security Agency and Friends, Collaborators, Enablers and Hangers-On cannot believe their good fortune. In these days of tight budgets, could their public relations firms have orchestrated a better run-up to the Senate vote on the “USA Freedom Act?”

Promoted as a reform of the NSA’s most egregious practices, the bill (S. 2685) has been embraced by the Titans of Tech who are pushing Congress for a quick vote. In a letter to Congress last week, they urged passage arguing that the “reforms” in the bill are critical to restore public trust and stem negative economic repercussions to the tech industry from the NSA’s “collect it all” frenzy.

The bill, they say, will send “a clear signal to the international community and to the American people that government surveillance programs are narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight.”

Although some civil liberties organizations, such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation, have expressed cautious support for the USA Freedom Act as it now stands, others are far more critical. A new coalition of civil liberties groups and prominent whistleblowers sent a letter yesterday to Senate stating their alarm and urging senators to vote the bill down.

Marcy Wheeler points out, the “details in USA Freedom Act make it clear the government has no intention of halting a number of abusive spying programs.” For example:

[T]he tech company letter made claims about the bill that are patently false — such as that it will “prevent the bulk collection of Internet metadata, call detail records, and other tangible things.” The bill definitely limits how the government collects Internet metadata and call detail records in the United States, though it will permit the ongoing bulk collection of “other tangible things” — such as credit card records, purchases of some beauty supplies, and money transfer records — under Section 215. More importantly, the bill does nothing to limit bulk collection of Internet metadata and call detail records overseas, which the government conducts under presidential authority. There’s no reason, then, that the USA Freedom Act should alleviate any concerns of the foreign customers the tech companies claim to be primarily interested in.

Nor should we be under any illusion that the curbs put on the phone dragnet (the program that collects metadata on all domestic phone calls) will be in any way meaningful.

Especially as the Executive claims the right to collect phone call data in bulk with or without Congressional approval. But it can only do so if the telecoms hand over the records.

That’s why the immunity for the providers is so important. The government claims it can conduct dragnet collection of all of America’s phone records without sanction from Congress. But it can only do so if the telephone companies willingly turn over the data (or if, as it does with much Internet metadata, it just takes it overseas). If Congress gives the providers this broad new immunity, then the government can do this dragnet — and any more exotic programs it comes up with.

Some in Washington believe the vote on the bill will not happen until after mid-term elections. It seems the IS threat was hyped so much this summer to sell PerpetualWar 3 (or 4), senators are afraid to vote for a bill which is advertised as “reform.”

Follow Us

Mark Rabine has lived in the Mission for over 40 years. "What a long strange trip it's been." He has maintained our Covid tracker through most of the pandemic, taking some breaks with his search for the Mission's best fried-chicken sandwich and now its best noodles. When the Warriors make the playoffs, he writes up his take on the games.

Leave a comment

Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *