Back in March, some of the U.S. government's extraordinary surveillance authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) lapsed. Since that time, House Democrats have been pushing to renew them, with some slight additional protections for civil liberties, including a ban on the government rooting through your browser history without a warrant. Earlier this week, it seemed that a bipartisan agreement had been reached.
But now the bill seems very much in doubt. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a civil liberties advocate, pulled his support when Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the bill would indeed allow warrantless browser history surveillance in some cases. Then President Trump attacked the bill on Twitter, urging House Republicans to vote no "until such time as our Country is able to determine how and why the greatest political, criminal, and subversive scandal in USA history took place!" (a reference to the investigation of the Trump campaign's ties to Russia). Finally, late on Wednesday, news broke that Democratic leaders in the House were postponing a vote indefinitely after it became clear that few if any GOP members were willing to vote against the president's wishes.
It raises a question: Why in God's name did Democrats even consider giving President Donald Trump — the man they recently impeached for abuse of power — more unaccountable surveillance powers? Over his own objection, no less?
The authorities in question have to do with extended access to business records, so-called "roving wiretaps" where the government can surveil multiple devices, and the ability to investigate a foreigner suspected of terrorism but with no known connection to an actual terrorist group. In the grand scheme of baldly unconstitutional post-9/11 dragnet surveillance programs, it's pretty small beer. But it still doesn't take much of an imagination to see how a corrupt would-be autocrat could abuse these powers. Simply accuse Democratic politicians, or their aligned nonprofits and consulting firms, or the party itself, of being in league with terrorism. Get the cronies you've installed in law enforcement to carry out faked-up investigations, and root through all their personal devices and online history. Then either plant some incriminating evidence, or gin up a case based on tendentious misrepresentation, or just broadcast all the most embarrassing stuff they find. Then you'd have at least a damaging fake scandal hanging over your opponent, or you might even be able to throw them in prison. (And that's leaving aside more venal possibilities like simply blackmailing rich people with compromising personal information.)
It is profoundly strange that Trump would even raise questions about this bill. Apparently he is still seething over his 2016 campaign being investigated at the time, and later by Robert Mueller, for suspicious connections to Russian intelligence, which included his associate Carter Page being targeted with a FISA warrant. As the election approaches, Trump is pushing an "OBAMAGATE" conspiracy theory that his predecessor abused law enforcement powers to rig the election — except somehow didn't tell anyone about it at the time and did not actually stop Trump from winning. It is obviously just a shiny object intended to whip his supporters into a froth and distract attention from his grotesque failure to contain the coronavirus pandemic, just as he attempted with the dread immigrant caravan during the 2018 midterm campaign.
It doesn't seem to occur to Trump that he could just accept the renewal of FISA powers and continue pressing the conspiracy theory regardless. In this and many other respects, Trump does not really understand that he is the president.
Regardless, the Democrats' posture is even stranger. Schiff himself was the leader of the impeachment prosecution of Trump just a few months ago. In a long speech before the Senate, Schiff argued that the Founding Fathers had put impeachment into the Constitution specifically to deal with someone like Trump: "a man who would subvert the interest of the nation to pursue his own interests. For a man who would seek to perpetuate himself in office by inviting foreign interference and cheating an election." Even on the extremely narrow grounds chosen by House Democrats (which left out his most egregious looting of public coffers) Trump undoubtedly deserved to be removed from office.
But Schiff doesn't seem to actually believe his case against Trump. There is no possible justification for granting a corrupt, election-cheating president — one who appointed a dishonest stooge as the nation's chief law enforcement officer — the power to root through anyone's browser history without a warrant. Indeed, all the enormous powers of the surveillance state (which accomplish little or nothing of value) are exceptionally dangerous in the hands of Trump, and Democrats should be working frantically to scale them back. So far it appears we have gotten lucky in that Trump doesn't appear to grasp what these powers are for or how he might exploit them fully, but that situation is not guaranteed to hold.
Indeed, Trump's own objections remove the only possible political justification for passing this bill — that Republicans would call Democrats soft on terrorism. They could shelve the bill, point to Trump, and shrug. Not their fault Trump didn't want these powers extended.
But in reality, Democrats like Schiff have completely swallowed the worldview of the national security establishment. Dragnet surveillance, like semi-randomly assassinating people up to and including American citizens, are some of the Important Tools that Keep Us Safe. The danger of a corrupt imbecile in the White House abusing those powers does not fit into this worldview, so it is ignored. If there is a choice between bowing before American imperial power and recognizing the danger of that power, they will choose the former, even when a game show demagogue is in the White House.
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