Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Under attack: Civil liberties' limits grow

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Recent decisions by President Barack Obama and Maine Governor John Baldacci have dampened progressive hopes that the Republican-inspired war on civil liberties might be winding down.

First up, OUR TELEPHONE CONVERSATIONS AND E-MAIL MESSAGES ARE NOT PRIVATE, AND MAY BE RECORDED AND GIVEN TO THE GOVERNMENT WITHOUT US EVER KNOWING. The Obama administration took a page from Dubya and argued that telecommunications companies should not have to disclose what, if any, information they gave the government in the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program.

It all began in 2006, when 21 Maine telephone customers asked the Maine Public Utilities Commission to investigate whether Verizon violated the state law requiring phone companies to protect customers' privacy rights.

When the warrantless wiretapping scandal broke, Verizon publicly rejected news reports that it had given the government information about customers' calls. The MPUC asked Verizon to affirm that statement under oath, but the request was blocked by the Bush administration's Justice Department, which insisted that any talk about warrantless wiretapping would inflict "exceptionally grave harm to national security."

The Obama administration kept up that argument, and on June 3 a federal judge in California agreed, despite the fact that we already know that — in addition to possible surveillance of terrorism suspects — publicly owned companies based in the United States helped the federal government spy on innocent citizens, as well as journalists, American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and international aid workers by monitoring their telephone calls.

And then, here in Maine, Governor John BALDACCI RELINQUISHED MAINE'S POSITION AS AN OPPONENT TO PRIVACY-INVADING FEDERAL RULES that do little to protect national security and mostly just inconvenience and intimidate people who want driver's licenses.

The so-called "REAL ID" law set out federal standards for state identification cards, saying they would prevent undocumented immigrants from getting official government ID. To force compliance, the Bush administration waved a hefty stick: If states didn't comply, their IDs would be considered invalid for federal purposes, like entering federal buildings or boarding commercial aircraft, even for domestic flights.

Maine was the first state whose legislature officially rejected REAL ID — back in 2007, saying it was an unfunded mandate from Washington that would endanger Mainers' privacy rights. A year later, under heavy pressure, Baldacci forced lawmakers to cave to the feds' demands, saying the potential inconvenience to Mainers was too great. He had, however, managed to hold out long enough to make it obvious Maine was being bullied by the Bushies.

But this year, with a new president seeking to revamp the REAL ID program, Maine lawmakers passed a bill that would have repealed most of the terms of last year's capitulation. On June 3, Baldacci stymied that effort to again be in a leading position, by vetoing it.