Sep
01
2011

Whistling Past the Wreckage of Civil Liberties

Watchdogs slept through a decade of rollback

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Ben (Falcifer)

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Ben (Falcifer)

When the USA Patriot Act* was rushed into law after the September 11 attacks, the erosion of civil liberties the Act represented—the broad powers it gave law enforcement to spy on people, and the creation of the dangerously ill-defined crime of “domestic terrorism”—met with little detailed scrutiny or principled challenge from major media.

Typical at the time was a Today show segment (NBC, 10/27/01) in which anchor Soledad O’Brien grilled a concerned legal advocate, “But, certainly, isn’t there a sense in wartime that you have to give up some of your privacies, especially when you’re talking about terrorists who exploited the free-doms that America offers in order to perpetuate their terrorist acts?”

When provisions of the Patriot Act were extended in May 2011, most people didn’t hear even a lopsided debate. NBC Nightly News (5/27/11), for one, focused its report on the presidential autopen used to sign the legislation.

The intervening decade has seen an expansion in federal law enforcement powers, combined with a cloaking of their operations, that is startling to many. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee’s Shahid Buttar (Truthout, 4/15/11) notes that Patriot Act provisions have been reauthorized three times “despite an equal number of Justice Department reports revealing massive and systemic abuses.”

Throughout this time, elite media’s fealty to official rationales and their anemic defense of the public’s rights have amounted to dereliction of duty. Writ large, it has meant accepting the undefined, unending “war on terror” as a challenge-proof premise for significant changes to U.S. law and policy, and dutifully censoring information the White House (whoever’s in it) wants held back, be it evidence of illegal wiretapping (Extra! Update, 2/06) or the location of a secret war’s drone base (FAIR Blog, 7/27/11).

Day to day, it’s meant treating the dismantling of democratic processes more or less like a series of unavoidable weather events, with intermittent editorial protests petering out into vague calls for “further review.”

Elite media seem unable to sustain the appropriate outrage, an attitude expressed inadvertently in a New York Times book review (6/12/11). “You don’t have to drink your fair-trade coffee out of a Morning Edition mug” to acknowledge the point of David Shipler’s The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties, Times reviewer Jonathan Mahler obliged, yet he still found the information somehow less than compelling: The grievous erosion of civil rights of the last 10 years is “scandalous stuff, but perhaps not of the sort that moves merchandise.”

If the 2001 press corps seemed to accept that “there will be a cost to our civil liberties,” as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell flatly declared (9/21/01), subsequent years have been spent mainly whistling past the wreckage.

In early 2002, for example, ABC World News Tonight (1/16/02) told viewers that a report from Human Rights Watch

says that several countries are using the U.S.-led war against terrorism as a justification to ignore human rights. Human Rights Watch says that Russia, Egypt, Israel, China, Zimbabwe, Malaysia and Uzbekistan have all cracked down on domestic opponents in the name of terrorism.

That’s a bold tweak on the report, which singled out the United States for “inspiring opportunistic attacks on civil liberties around the world.” A less euphemistic account in the London Guardian (1/17/02) noted the report’s charge that “dictators ‘need do nothing more than photocopy’ measures introduced by the Bush administration.”

A subsequent Human Rights Watch report (8/02) documenting violations of due process—including arbitrary, secret detentions—in the treatment of post-9/11 detainees was largely ignored (FAIR Advisory, 8/26/02). Some might attribute the lack of pickup to the fact that the victims described were mainly Muslim noncitizens. That wouldn’t excuse it, clearly, or explain the similar lack of interest when U.S. citizens were caught up in the sweep.

Washington, D.C., police carried out an evidently illegal and politically motivated detention in September 2002, arresting en masse hundreds of participants in a non-violent protest against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, along with bystanders and journalists (Extra!, 11-12/02). The arrested were handcuffed and shackled, denied food and legal counsel.

With few exceptions, media reaction was either to normalize such abuse, as when a CNN reporter (9/27/02) explained that mass arrests have “become part of the ritual” at international finance meetings, or to suggest abuse was earned, as on MSNBC (9/27/02), where “the question is, do the demonstrators have some legitimate gripes or are they just a bunch of opportunistic hooligans?”

Media downplayed the impact of measures like the Protect America Act of 2007, which allowed near open-ended surveillance of emails and phone calls, by interpreting them narrowly, as involving only “communications between potential terrorists” (CBS Evening News, 8/4/07), or “government’s power to eavesdrop on foreign terror suspects” (ABC World News, 8/5/07), explained Aziz Huq of the Brennan Center for Justice. And that’s a key problem.

“As soon as you say somebody’s a terrorism suspect, well, that’s the end of it, we don’t need to worry about them,” Huq told CounterSpin (8/10/07):

The problem the media rarely pick up on is the government thinks people are suspects all the time, and it’s often wrong. [That’s] the whole point of having processes, the whole point of having institutions, the whole point of having a Bill of Rights.
Framing this issue as “Is this a bad guy or is this not a bad guy?” and if it’s a bad guy, we can spy on them, we can do what have you to them, that misses out on what’s really at stake.

It’s not that media have been silent. A 2008 New York Times editorial (3/6/08) railed against “unrelenting assaults on civil rights, civil liberties and the balance of powers in government.” But opportunities to translate that espoused concern into reporting were missed. Neither the Times nor the Washington Post, for example, featured civil liberties in their ongoing “issue trackers” of the year’s presidential candidates (Extra!, 5-6/08).

The same year, the FBI granted itself alarming operational changes, including, as the Washington Post duly reported (10/4/08), allowing “investigators to recruit informants, employ physical surveillance and conduct interviews in which agents disguise their identities...without any single fact indicating a person has ties to a terrorist organization.”

But editorially the Post (9/29/08) was on board with giving agents “flexibility” to “thwart terrorist plots, [rather] than apprehend perpetrators after they’ve struck.” They chastised the agency mildly for secrecy; it was unnecessary, “given that the guidelines will be made public after their adoption.” The New York Times (10/4/08) also reported the new rules, but still managed to mislead with a headline referring to the revision of “FBI Guidelines for Terrorism Investigations.”

That’s the thing: Media submerge the reality of the assault on civil rights every time they report the state’s overreaches as being about “terror-fighting tools,” as the AP (5/26/11) described Patriot Act provisions. Under a system of civil liberties, people are regarded as criminals after being convicted of crimes—not deemed to be so beforehand to facilitate stripping them of rights.

The effect is hardly undone by the occasional suggestion (New York Times, 2/13/11) that laws like Patriot “should be carefully re-examined before being hastily reauthorized year after year.”

Likewise, when the FBI pushed in June to expand its power yet again—seeking more leeway to infiltrate groups, search databases without making a record of it, and root through people’s trash for material to pressure them to become informants—the New York Times (6/19/11) was firmly against it.

But after a decade of destruction, handwringing that “changes have occurred without any real discussion about whether the supposed added security is worth the harm to civil liberties” sounds worse than weak—coming from an outlet that might have been expected to provide the forum for such discussion.

* The name was originally an acronym, standing for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”