Politicians now typically respond to major tragedies with an outpouring of … opportunistic agenda-pushing. This disgusting penchant for capitalizing on the public’s grief and fear — evidenced in the nefarious USA PATRIOT Act following the attacks of 9/11 — has, of course, surfaced on multiple fronts after the massacre in Orlando.
While the nation mourned and attempted to parse how, exactly, a shooter had pulled off the slaughter of 49 people while pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State — despite national domestic surveillance measures, previous FBI scrutiny of shooter Omar Mateen, and a gun store owner/DHS poster child who ‘saw something and said something’ — politicians plotted to see just how many of your rights they could disappear.
In fact, their varied assaults on your liberties share an undeniably laughable common thread: each proposal would rob you of yet more freedom while doing nothing at all to prevent another attack.
But that doesn’t mean politicians and government agencies won’t employ the logically fallacious appeal to emotion, as in fears roused by Orlando, as a weapon to get what they want — indeed, they count on all of us to succumb to such scaremongering so we’ll willingly sign over the precious few rights we have left.
Proposing gun control legislation might not be shocking in itself following a slaughter in a public place, but guns only constitute the guise for these pernicious policies with distressingly Orwellian consequences. As the public erupted in ire on either side of the classically American issue of firearms, a number of Congress members constructed several pieces of legislation that would unite the opposing sides — were they not exploitative of people’s worst fears.
While one piece of legislation comes wrapped in the tidy pretense of gun control, its details sent a chill down the backs of even the normally left-leaning ACLU. Democrats seek to deny the most fundamental of rights by removing due process from the equation — linking the ability to legally purchase a firearm to the government’s opaque and notoriously flawed terror watch list.
Superficially, the premise a person suspected of having ties to terrorist groups thusly shouldn’t be permitted the right of gun ownership would seem justifiable, if not noble. However, pushing for gun control dependent on the error-wracked, secretive, and constitutionally-questionable terror watchlist opens potential floodgates for additional legislation to be propped on the same nefarious list in the future.
“In this country,” House Speaker Paul Ryan cautioned at a press conference Thursday, cited by the Intercept,
“we do not take away people’s constitutional rights without due process. This is not just Republicans saying this. It’s groups like the ACLU who are saying this.”
Rightly so. Though the ACLU remarked in a letter to Congress members pushing to pass the legislation that it doesn’t oppose regulatory measures in regard to firearms, the group’s stance against the Democrats’ proposal reiterated the blacklist “is error-prone and unreliable because it uses vague and overbroad criteria” and offers little in the way of redress for individuals wrongly designated.
As possibly the most pointed evidence of such flaws, Mediaite resurrected a CNN report from 2004 detailing Rep. John Lewis’ — who spearheaded a laughably misguided, fully catered Democrat sit-in on the floor of the House while pontificating on the need for “courage” — mistaken placement on the dubious no-fly list.
If one of the politicians responsible for this egregious legislation doesn’t grasp its treacherous future implications, it’s no wonder vast swaths of the populace haven’t, either. While the ACLU, the media, and countless others denigrated the latching of gun control to blacklists, the public debated the oft-maligned right to bear arms — evidencing precisely how deftly the government can sneak away virtually any right or freedom when the circumstances provoke an emotional gut-check.
But if this measure weren’t maddeningly atrocious in its own right, the Democrats’ “supremely authoritarian Terror Warrior,” as Glenn Greenwald described Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the Intercept, unleashed an insufferable bill to “give the attorney general the discretion to block a sale to a given individual suspected of involvement in some kind of terrorism.”
Somehow, the Democrats in Congress, asserting arrogant ignorance of, if not blatant disdain for, the Constitution, sought an updated, secondary, and highly secretive terror watchlist that even Huxley couldn’t have conceptualized — adding potential terrorists to the ever-expanding list of farcically-mischaracterized unfortunates the government deems bad people.
Though her dystopic bill didn’t garner sufficient support to pass, the country came chillingly close to taking an unrecoverable step in the exact wrong direction.
Indeed, by wielding the tragedy in Orlando, the Democrats “started at the beginning, and are making their way down the Bill of Rights, with the Second Amendment and the Fifth Amendment. The Second Amendment holds that ‘the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,’ while the Fifth provides that no one may ‘be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.’ These are what are known as civil rights, meaning the rights associated with citizenship, rights having to do with the relationship between people — or ‘the People’ as the Constitution puts it — and their government,” the National Review, an admittedly conservative-leaning outlet, aptly described the attack on our putatively protected rights.
On Monday, incidentally, the Supreme Court struck down a challenge to the Lautenberg Amendment, which sought to revoke the prohibition of the purchase of firearms by those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.
But the right to keep and bear arms isn’t — by far — the sole target of rights-squandering governmental programs.
Courtesy of a critical report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), we now know the FBI abuses its facial recognition technology — so much so, the agency stores, collectively, more photos in its database than there are people in the United States: 411.9 million. Not criminal mugshots, but driver’s license and passport photos of wholly innocent people comprise the bulk of the FBI’s contentious biometrics database.
Without so much as a court order, the agency performed searches of the database some 36,000 times between 2011 and 2015, despite its highly questionable accuracy. As noted by Vanity Fair, without publicly available information concerning false positives — in part due the FBI’s failure to audit the Facial Analysis, Comparison, and Evaluation (FACE) program — there exists no means for affirming its efficacy in investigations by the agency.
According to the ACLU, Vanity Fair reported, determining whether or not FACE and the FBI adhere to privacy protections and rules has been impossible, in part because “for five years [the agency] did not publish a legally required Systems of Records Notice (SORN) informing the public about its use of face recognition.”
According to the scathing report from the GAO, the FBI blatantly undermines privacy concerns by keeping such a sweeping log without disclosing how it has been or will be employed.
“To wit,” Vanity Fair explained, “the driver’s-license photos of the residents of 16 states and some additional 30 million photos from a biometric database are available for the F.B.I. to search at will. Another 18 states are reportedly negotiating with the F.B.I. over the use of driver’s-license images. The F.B.I. hadn’t sufficiently notified the public of the technology’s use.”
Of particular note, the agency is seeking to exempt both FACE and its chillingly extensive parent, the biometrics database, from protections afforded by the Privacy Act.
“Specifically,” the Intercept reported, “the FBI’s proposal would exempt the database from the provisions in the Privacy Act that require federal agencies to share with individuals the information they collect about them and that give people the legal right to determine the accuracy and fairness of how their personal information is collected and used.”
Such dogged commitment to secrecy over transparency and disclosure,Vanity Fair cautioned, solidly indicates a move by the FBI similar to the broad and indiscriminate domestic surveillance programs employed by the National Security Agency, as were valiantly exposed by Edward Snowden. Lending credibility to that theory, a response to the GAO report by the Department of Justice — which oversees the FBI — chose an argument based in semantics to justify sweeping usage of the database.
Because FACE, the DoJ retorted tellingly, seeks ‘potential threats,’ as opposed to confirming “positive identification,” inaccurate leads don’t equate with false positives and thus do not violate safety and privacy protections. Though the GAO strongly disagreed — and encouraged public transparency, an investigation into lack of audits, and greater measures to protect individuals’ stored biometric information — there cannot possibly exist any guarantee the FBI and DoJ aren’t, essentially, exploiting the database similarly to how the NSA opportuned vague language in the Patriot Act to enact mass, dragnet-style surveillance.
In fact, a bill sponsored by John McCain seeking the warrantless trawling of people’s browser histories, metadata, and emails — opportunistically introduced by invoking fear following the mass shooting in Orlando — narrowly avoided passage by the Senate on Wednesday.
“In the wake of the tragic massacre in Orlando,” McCain unsurprisingly asserted in a press release, “it is important our law enforcement have the tools they need to conduct counterterrorism investigations and track ‘lone wolves,’ or ISIL-inspired terrorists who do not have direct connections to foreign terrorist organizations but who seek to harm Americans.”
Expanding on the hotly-contended use of National Security Letters (NSLs) — already given broader leniency through the Patriot Act — the legislation raised suspicions as several members of Congress and privacy advocates pointed out its redundancy in connection to emergency measures already in place allowing for that exact surveillance.
But even a full investigation of Pulse nightclub mass shooter, Omar Mateen, rightly ended with the FBI’s dismissal of him as a potential terrorist or extremist. While questions regarding Mateen’s motivation for slaughtering nearly 50 people remain as-yet unanswered, an investigation by the CIA attested the FBI had been justified in dropping the old probe into Mateen as he had no tangible ties to either the so-called Islamic State or any other terrorist group.
Considering that evidence in conjunction with the previous dead-end investigation, the FBI’s employment of the Orlando premise to implement further insidious surveillance powers only highlights the government’s appetite for no-holds-barred access to our private lives. Indeed, the FBI’s rapacious quest for access to information as was proposed by McCain, according to Trevor Timm at the Guardian, is rumored to already be underway — despite repeated advisements by the DoJ the agency must first obtain a warrant.
Such cautions ring hollow, however, as the Justice Department continues testing limits and pushing for the removal of strictures to the FBI’s ability to hack into computers around the world.
“Using the obscure process for amending the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure,” Timm explained, “the department has convinced the courts that they should be able to get one warrant to potentially hack thousands of computers, and shouldn’t have to comply with the normal rules involving getting the court order in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred.”
This measure would further allow FBI hackers to hack even those who have been victimized by other hackers — a thwarting of the democratic process the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) called a “recipe for disaster.” On Thursday, a Virginia Federal Appeals Court officially put that disingenuous recipe on the menu.
“In a dangerously flawed decision unsealed today,” EFF announced, “a federal district court in Virginia ruled that a criminal defendant has no ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ in his personal computer, located inside his home. According to the court, the federal government does not need a warrant to hack into an individual’s computer.”
Whenever a tragedy occurs, the utmost vigilance must be trained instead to the government’s penchant for capitalizing on public fear and mourning to further discard our few remaining rights — and the massacre in Orlando, as these alarming examples prove, has been far from the exception to that tendency.
While the public mourned and scrambled to come to terms with the mass shooting, the government initiated a multi-fronted assault on Americans’ privacy and personal sovereignty — and no indication can be found these various agencies intend to stop anytime soon, if ever.
This work by The Last American Vagabond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, and may be reposted as is, with attribution to the author and TheLastAmericanVagabond.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Ryan@thelastamericanvagabond.com.