The very fine public servant, Russ Feingold, cautioned against the steady slippage of our democracy toward autocracy back in October 2001, when he stood tall as the only U.S. Senator to vote against the Patriot Act. Warning that its anti-democratic provisions would create a nation "where the government is entitled to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your email communications," Feingold rightly concluded: "That country wouldn't be America."
So here we are, having devolved from the founders' principled insistence on erecting the strongest palisades for the defense of the people's personal liberties — to now having a secret government inside our borders and inside our lives. The National Security Agency is running a labyrinthine, secret, extravagant, unconstitutional and out-of-control electronic surveillance operation that targets you.
Yes, you! And me. Its not just German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other head-of-state allies who are furious that this veracious nest of snoops has been listening-in on their private conversations for years, but also everyone living in our own Land of the Free. We citizens have been redefined by our government as suspects.
Not that NSA officialdom actually thinks that you, Mr. Upright or Ms. Doright, are terrorists or even "persons of interest" — but, then again, you might be. So, the spook bureaucracy has unilaterally chosen to create an elaborate, electronic Rube-Goldbergish spy matrix that (A) appropriates and agglomerates everyone's "metadata" — a geek term defined as data that provides information about other data — channels it into (B) banks of rapidly spinning supercomputers that (C) analyze your and my terrorist inclinations, based on (D) the phone calls we make and get, (E) e-mails we send and receive, (F) websites we visit and topics we Google, (G) Facebook friends and pages we like, and (H) credit card expenditures and bank transactions we make.
Even the code-names of NSA's array of electronic eyes are almost comically Orwellian: PRISM, Tempora, XKeyscore, and — my favorite — Boundless Informant.
But all this, and for what? To make you and me safe from terrorists, the hierarchy chants in unison. Constantly pointing to 9/11, the spies and their political henchmen solemnly assert that, hypothetically, bulk surveillance of every American might have, possibly could have, maybe would have stopped that horrific plot. But the phone conversations that mattered in that case were those that did NOT happen — the breakdown in communication between the CIA and the FBI, and between FBI headquarters and its local agents.
When the top brass of U.S. SpyWorld did a dog-and-pony show for the House intelligence committee on June 18, they claimed that "dozens" of terrorist attacks had been prevented since 9/11 by NSA's SuperVac programs. Dozens? "More than 50," clarified NSA's director. But wait, how many of those were plots for terrorist attacks on our soil? "A little over 10," he mumbled. That's it? Years of scooping up ALL metadata on EVERY American to find only 10 plots?
Moreover, he was able to name only four of those 10, and none were serious threats to do major harm to Americans. In fact, one involved a bombing in India, one is a questionable case of $8,500 ostensibly sent to terrorists in Somalia, one was actually uncovered by regular police work, and the fourth was not a plot to attack the U.S., but to send funds abroad to al-Qaida. For this, we should shred our Bill of Rights?
"We've got congressional oversight and judicial oversight," Obama said to a reporter on Sept. 13, then expressed exasperation that people don't have faith in the system, "And if people can't trust not only the executive branch, but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution, due process, and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here."
Well, yes sir, you do have some problems, BIG ones. Obama and the surveillance establishment are proposing a bit more "disclosure" to fix the agency's PR problem. But that's just warmed over B.S. We can't give him — or Congress — a pass on this. It's too big, too destructive of our values and self-respect. NSA's domestic spy matrix and the Patriot Act itself confront us as a multi-eyed, hydra-headed, democracy-devouring monster. Forget disclosure; the monster must be dismantled.
(Jim Hightower has been called American's most popular populist. The radio commentator and former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture is author of seven books, including "There's Nothing In the Middle of Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos" and his new work, "Swim Against the Current: Even Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow".)