ILLUSTRATION BY: Nik Moore: indyartsnyc.org
As the media focused on the bill’s creation of a national intelligence director post, lawmakers inserted numerous provisions that radically expand the government’s policing powers –and even set up a possible system for the government to track citizens electronically by federalizing driver’s licenses and embedding them with radio frequency identification chips.
The full implications of the legislation are still unknown. According to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the Senate approved the bill by a vote of 98-2 without completely reviewing its contents. How could they, he asked, when they received the final 615-page version less than 24 hours before the vote?
“This reminds me of how the Patriot Act itself was enacted: in haste, with insufficient review, and with no real understanding of its true consequences,” Byrd said.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), who was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act three years ago, threw his support behind the intelligence reform bill, but was highly critical of certain provisions that were unsuccessfully proposed in 2003 as Patriot Act II.
The bill authorizes the government to spy on any non-citizen that it considers a terrorist suspect. Until now the government had to prove to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that any subject of surveillance had ties to a terrorist organization or a foreign power.
Anyone arrested on terrorism charges will now be automatically denied bail and jailed until trial. Previously the government had to prove that suspects were either a flight risk or dangerous before they could be denied bail.
The bill also broadens the definition of what constitutes material support to a terrorist organization, despite rulings by federal courts that this approach to identifying supporters of terrorism largely amounts to guilt-by-association.
To make matters worse, efforts were made to dilute any oversight of the new national intelligence director, who will be appointed by the president to oversee the nation’s 15 spy agencies.
The bill creates a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, but the White House-appointed board will be nearly powerless and without subpoena power.
“It’s a civil liberties board in name only,” said former Congressman Bob Barr. “It’s hollow. It’s probably worse than having nothing at all because it gives the appearance of having one.”
The Senate had voted to create an Inspectors General post to act as a watchdog, but this provision was stripped out of the final bill.
And even Congress can’t expect to get straightforward answers from the new intelligence czar – any testimony the director gives must first be approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget.