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Michealene Cristini Risley Headshot

The Hollow Ring of Liberty

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Wake up, America! We have become far too complacent and trusting. We have been asleep at the wheel while our civil liberties are taken from us piece by piece. In only the past few years, Americans have suffered several egregious blows, with basic human dignities being stripped by our government. The founding fathers would be ashamed to learn how many personal freedoms had been compromised. These freedoms were the core tenants of our foundation as a nation. Yet today, we have rationalized their loss as critical to our national security. At what point does improving our safety compromise our freedom?

The Obama administration has continued to expand on many of the civil rights violations that the Bush administration pioneered. These infringements have come in many forms, assaulting the freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and the rights to privacy and fair trial. Worse still, President Obama enacted many of these abuses after being elected with a mandate to undo the very same problems! There has been a crisis of conscience in the current administration, and an abysmal job from the national media to educate the populous. In reality, there has been very little difference between the last two administrations in regards to protecting our civil rights.

May 2009: President Obama reversed a previous position to release photos of U.S. soldiers abusing captured prisoners. In April of that same year, the Department of Defense told a federal court that it would release the photos. Their release sparked an investigation that uncovered nearly 200 criminal abuses by soldiers.

July 2010: Washington Post released "Top Secret America," a series of articles detailing the results from a two-year investigation into the rapidly expanding field of homeland security. They found 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on counter-terrorism. There are about 10,000 homeland security and intelligence locations across America alone. The National Security Agency intercepts and stores more than 1.7 billion varied communications, including emails and phone calls. The FBI maintains a database network called "Guardian," which contains reports of allegedly suspicious activities from local, state, and federal law enforcement.

March 2011: Obama signed into law H.R. 347 the "Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011," which expands the existing statue criminalizing certain activities in areas restricted by the Secret Service. These include the White House, the vice president's residence, any area where an individual under Secret Service protection is present, and any area in which a National Special Security Event is taking place. Under the existing statue, four types of activities are illegal in respect to these zones. One cannot "knowingly" enter or remain in a restricted zone without lawful authority, nor can one "knowingly" engage in "disorderly or disruptive" conduct in or near a restricted zone. A simple, peaceful, organized protest would not be allowed under this law. A prosecutor would only need to show the intent to disrupt government business for the activities to be illegal. More troubling still is that "disorderly or disruptive conduct" remains undefined, granting infinite leeway to prosecutors. One cannot "knowingly" block the entrance or exist of a restricted zone, nor can one "knowingly" engage in violence against a person or property in a restricted zone. While the language may seem a bit innocuous, the law does not fully define what it entails and leaves far too much up to the determination of the government and not in the lettering of the law. I for one do not feel comfortable with the government defining my intent.

May 2011: President Obama, despite bipartisan objection, approved a congressional four-year extension to many of the controversial sections within the Patriot Act that were set to expire. These provisions allow the government to seize records without the owner's knowledge and conduct covert surveillance and wiretaps of people with no prior connection to terrorist organizations. In 2010, data suggested that wiretaps were up 34 percent from 2009, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts: an all-time high.

December 2011: the coupe de grace against civil liberties to date. President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, codifying indefinite military detention without charge or trial into law for the first time in American history. So much for the liberty the founding fathers envisioned. The NDAA's dangerous detention previsions would authorize the president, and future presidents, to allow the military to pick up and indefinitely imprison people, including Americans, captured anywhere in the world, without legal representation. This is particularly disturbing given the fact that a key promise from the President Obama's initial campaign was to close Guantanamo Bay.

Recently, H.R. 3523 "Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act" was particularly concerning due to the clause "notwithstanding any other provision of law," meaning it was immune to other existing league statues. This provision allowed companies to share information with Homeland Security, the IRS, NSA, and other security agencies. By including "notwithstanding," CISPA's drafters intended to make their legislation trump all existing federal and state laws, including those regarding wiretaps and educational, medical, or private records. Legislators managed to quietly pass CISPA in the wake of SOPA's widely publicized Internet uproar. For all their efforts we still ended up with CISPA, SOPAs next of kin.

Have these numerous pieces of legislation actually made us safer as Americans? Or have the simply served to silence Americans? The only thing we have been "protected from" is access to privacy. We are the victims. IF we are under the guise of being protected by big government, shouldn't we know why they feel the need to eavesdrop into our private lives? What is the true cost of this façade of protection? Your civil liberties.

Special thanks to Evan Brown, Policy Adviser at Michealene 2012.

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