The first thing to cross my mind when I walked into Miami’s Bayfront Park for a sold-out concert last week was, “This would be a perfect opportunity for a bombing or mass shooting. Am I safe?” In this and many other ways, terrorism is changing American culture.
Terrorism is even influencing Congress, as exemplified by this Thursday’s vote to uphold the federal government’s ability to spy on phone conversations and text messages if it believes that person is involved in terrorist activity.
Congress showed considerable progress in the realm of civil liberties in 2014 and 2015, but has started to reverse its course as attacks of terror continue at home and abroad. The debate is centered on programs that spy on foreign emails and phone calls under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. These snooping programs also pick up the private communications between innocent Americans.
Intel agencies claim they should be allowed to sift through this data as they investigate terrorism. Civil libertarians rightly argue that this data should never be collected in the first place; if it must be that way, agents should be required to obtain a warrant.
The civil libertarians won that fight with 293 votes in 2014 and 255 in 2015. The same debate raged last week, this time falling in favor of Big Brother with 222 votes to 198.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who has spearheaded the fight for civil liberties three years in a row, argues that “Congress should not abandon the Constitution in the face of terrorism. Ufortunately, proponents of warrantless surveillance mischaracterized our legislation and its bearing on the investigation in Orlando.”
Dozens of voters who had sided with Massie in years past have since changed their minds. And most of them are Republicans. Chris Stewart (R-UT) argues that Massie’s plan puts Americans in danger and deprives law enforcement of the tools it needs to stop attacks like the Orlando shooting. “I want to protect our privacy and our constitutional rights, but objections to intelligence operations must be based on facts and not rumors or misunderstanding,” says Stewart. “Limiting access to critical law enforcement tools to stop these plots would directly put Americans in danger.”
Section 702 powers are due for renewal in 2017, and plans for the upcoming fight are already in the works. FBI Director James Comey leads the nation’s intelligence chiefs in campaigning to keep the rule in effect. “This is not even a close call,” he says, “if we lost this tool, it would be a very bad thing for us.”
On the other side you have civil liberties activists like Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, who vows that “the fight over Section 702 is far from over, and we will continue to work with Congress to ensure that reforms are enacted.”
The significance of Thursday’s vote runs far deeper than a question of civil rights. In one fell swoop, our enemies have killed more than 50 innocent people, eliminated the NSA’s post-Snowden trepidation, changed American law, and impacted our civil liberties.
The point of terrorism is terror. Thursday’s vote reflects that terror. Like it or not, ISIS is winning.