Earlier this month Vaughn Walker, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, ruled that the system of warrantless domestic wiretapping that began under the Bush administration was and is illegal. In a way, this is old news. Domestic surveillance without a court-issued warrant was first found illegal by a federal judge almost four years ago, in August 2006. However, due to a series of appeals and legal technicalities, the legality of the program has remained an issue. What is new about the case is that this time it was the Obama administration defending it in court.
Specifically, the program is illegal for its violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was passed by Congress in 1978 so there would be clear rules regarding surveillance of foreign entities and individuals in the United States. This was in response to revelations of widespread government surveillance, including the program COINTELPRO, which targeted black rights and anti-war activists.
FISA was amended by the 2001 Patriot Act to be more lenient in allowing government surveillance. However, in 2005, The New York Times uncovered the fact that President Bush had ordered FISA to be bypassed completely in the surveillance process.
President Obama’s defense of the program ought to raise concerns among those who elected him. On civil liberties, says Santa Cruz Mayor and community studies professor Mike Rotkin, the Obama administration has “a mixed record.”
“I would not be surprised to find them contesting the latest decision and pushing it to a higher level,” said Rotkin, who has served on Santa Cruz’s American Civil Liberties Union board for 10 years. “And, unfortunately, if they get to the current Supreme Court, we’re going be in big trouble.”
The Obama administration argued in court that the surveillance program constituted an important “state secret,” and that for the courts to examine it would endanger national security.
“But anything can be a state secret,” Rotkin protests. “There still needs to be judicial review of state secrets. They could get warrants that would be subject to limitations based on state secret needs … they’re not doing that, and that’s what’s scary here. ‘We want to wiretap this guy. We’re not going to tell anybody who he is, why we’re doing it … nobody will know anything, we’re just going to go wiretapping. And, trust us, we wouldn’t do it if it weren’t important to the state.’ What kind of limitation is that? I mean, where’s the line between that and fascism? State power should not be unbridled. It needs to be limited in significant ways.”
Mayor Rotkin said more than once in his interview with me that he did not think President Obama was a fascist, and that the Obama administration has been far better than Bush’s. I agree with him, although some on the left, such as Ted Rall, President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, have become so frustrated with Obama that they have deemed him even worse than his predecessor.
But Obama is better than Bush. His recent actions regarding health care and nuclear weapons prove this. However, his continuation of Bush-era civil liberties abuses like warrantless wiretapping have not been his only failure — his escalation of the war in Afghanistan is one of the biggest examples. I only ask that students think about the president’s policies before they put on their campaign T-shirts from 2008, and that they continue to fight for causes they believe in, not just politicians.