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Protect America Act does opposite

There is a scene from the old TV series “M*A*S*H” where Cpl. Radar O’Reilly is trying to trick Col. Henry Blake into signing a document.

Radar puts the paper in front of the colonel, then puts his hand over all but the bottom. Top secret, he says. Just sign it. And the not-too-bright commanding officer does just that.

I’m reminded of this piece of television history by the fight over a provision of the Protect America Act working its way through Congress. The Bush administration wants to give telecommunications companies immunity for any laws they might have broken by tapping our phones and reading our e-mails without the warrants required by the Constitution. But the administration will not explain exactly why they require this immunity.



What did these phone companies do? What information did they share with the government, and what was that information used for?

From what little our government will tell us, it’s all vitally important national security stuff that we shouldn’t worry about.



Vice President Dick Cheney recently said the program is “well-managed.” Really? Like Iraq has been well-managed? Katrina? The budget?

Cheney’s claims are likely to be as true as is his aim with a shotgun.

Secret programs like this are very dangerous, and this is why they need specific checks and balances to make sure they are serving the public and not vice versa.

The Protect America Act should be renamed the “Use Fourth Amendment as Toilet Paper” Act, since its basic premise is to bypass Fourth Amendment protections in a decidedly unconstitutional way, and with nothing in the way of any checks or balances. It’s a law befitting a dictatorship, not a democracy.

The act under consideration is a revision to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which is itself quasi-constitutional at best. But at least FISA has some accountability and oversight to keep it from being abused.

But you can forget accountability if this new law is passed.

Maybe we need to redefine the word “law,” since it doesn’t mean anything in this country anymore – not if you are in a position of power. The fact that the only partisan wrangling has been over giving immunity to telecom companies speaks volumes. Elected officials in both parties no longer see a need to adhere to the Constitution.

We are witnessing a convergence of George Orwell’s most frightening visions of a future devoid of freedom. We have from “1984” the specter of Big Brother spying on our every word, totally unaccountable to anyone. Then we have from “Animal Farm” the new law of the land, that “some animals (politicians) are more equal than others.”

If the Bush administration and Congress really think the restrictions of the Fourth Amendment are so onerous as to cause us real harm, then amend the Constitution. There is a procedure for doing this. Yet, as we have witnessed with the president’s infamous “signing statements,” it’s easier to ignore laws than to follow them.

While the telecom immunity provision isn’t the most onerous part of this bill, it was one of the few avenues for Americans to fight these unlawful actions by the government. Those lawsuits against the telecoms threatened to throw this issue into the federal court system, where it’s a lot harder to get away with redefining laws as one sees fit. There’s a good chance that a judge might just do his or her job and declare the whole program unconstitutional.

Americans are understandably afraid of terrorism. But we also need to think about how dangerous a government can be that operates in secret and is unaccountable to the people it is supposed to serve. The worst murderers in history – Stalin, Hitler, Mao, etc. – are those who used the power of government to kill their own people, all in the name of protecting them from some scary outside force.

Preventing this kind of runaway power is why we have a Constitution. Someone had better stand up for that Constitution soon, or they might as well roll it up and put it to use in the White House bathroom for all the good it’s doing.

– Kirk Caraway writes for Swift Communications, Inc. He can be reached through his blog at http://kirkcaraway.com.


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