Eradication of civil liberties in the US

2013-05-15 09:32
Associated Press reporters and editors work in their assigned space in the House Press Gallery on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Cliff Owen, AP)

Associated Press reporters and editors work in their assigned space in the House Press Gallery on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Cliff Owen, AP)

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Chicago - There is a maxim that says one should never trust the intent of a passed law, but rather how it can be abused. This, for example, is why there was such outrage from some quarters at the Protection of State Information Bill. Momentum from such laws can gain, and turn into vile opportunities for government to meddle in the affairs of its citizens, as the USA's Department of Justice (DoJ) did to the Associated Press in a story that broke on Monday.
 
While the Department has provided very little in terms of explanation, we know that it helped itself to two months' – April and May of 2012 – worth of phone records for AP journalists at three offices, plus the AP's office in the House of Representatives, and included work and personal phone numbers. The government has given no reason for wanting this collection of records, but there is enough anecdotal evidence to point to a criminal investigation into who may have provided information to the AP in a story run last year, about a terror plot which was stymied in Yemen.
 
If this is the case, the government is utterly abusing its authority – although it is empowered with immense privilege when it comes to laughing off any civilian's right to privacy, as a deluge of legislation motivated by terrorism concerns since 2001 has been enacted. It is also worth bearing in mind that the media can only report leaked information if someone within government leaks it.
 
As Glenn Greenwald explains in The Guardian: "The legality of the DoJ's actions is impossible to assess because it is not even known what legal authority it claims nor the legal process it invoked to obtain these records. Particularly in the post-9/11 era, the DoJ's power to obtain phone records is… dangerously broad. It often has the power to obtain those records without the person's knowledge and for a wildly broad scope of time."
 
This is merely on top of the administration's documented crackdown on whistle-blowers, using the Espionage Act – intended to limit spying in the 1910s – to a greater degree than every president before Obama combined. Obama has seven whistle-blowers who he has charged via the Espionage Act on his own (and he still has three and a half years left in office), while his predecessors have a grand total of three.

Out in the open

Although the government has been digging into people's phone records for years, there has been only sporadic outcry from those who care about civil liberties (with the notable exception of those who wish to continue owning guns). However, journalists are usually predisposed to make a big deal of something that affects them (note the coverage of hurricanes when they hit New York or Washington, DC, where most of the nation's journalists live), so this "investigation" of the AP is bound to get major traction, as an example of the government allegedly trying to muzzle the press, of government overreach, and a detailing of the authority the government has to stick its nose into just about anything.
 
While the motivation for such blanket coverage – you're going to be seeing buckets of it – might be some horrendous US laws finally bedonnering* those in the media, it is a public good that this is going to be dragged out into the open. Civil liberties are a vital part of a citizen's life – legislating against them in the slightest will always result in a swing of power towards government. And such power rarely ever swings back.
 
Citizens of the world should never be content to let government erode freedom, because once exacted it never comes back.
 
The Land of the Free is learning that lesson pretty quickly now, as the Department of Justice need not even worry in this instance, as it hasn't broken one single law, even though it is making the people it governs incredibly uncomfortable. 

*beating up
 
  - Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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