Freedom from unwarranted search and seizure is one of the great ideals that this county was founded upon. It is also an issue that has garnered a great deal of attention since 2013, when former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which ordinary Americans are being spied upon by their own government.
On May 31, provisions of the USA Patriot Act expired, that has been used to justify some of the most egregious abuses of our civil liberties. Despite a late-night Senate session, lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have kept the NSA’s controversial bulk data collection programs running ‚Äî specifically controversial Section 215, which had been interpreted to give federal authorities vast surveillance powers to vacuum up the call records of millions of innocent Americans.
Reining in the NSA
On June 1, the House of Representatives voted to authorize the USA Freedom Act, which continued/restored most aspects of the Patriot Act, but let the bulk collection under Section 215 die. That evening Ted Lieu, our U.S. Congressional representative from the 33rd District, appeared on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” to speak about the issue.
Lieu had been calling for the expiration of Section 215 for some time. But he voted against the Freedom Act, because he didn’t think it went far enough to curb abuse.
“The USA Freedom Act clearly is better than the existing Patriot Act … [but] it’s still a little too broad the way it’s written” said Lieu, whose first 2014 campaign TV ad focused on the NSA, concluding with “Strong National Security: Yes. Spying on Americans: No.”
“My constituents in Southern California sent me here to fight for their privacy and Fourth Amendment rights … I voted no because I thought the limits don’t go far enough … ”
Lieu voiced concern about the role of private sector telephone companies holding onto to these records under the Freedom Act, stating, “I don’t believe private sector companies should be an arm of law enforcement.” He also expressed concerns about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Courts, which are charged with approving government warrants ‚Äî which he said “are essentially rubber stamp courts that have done everything the NSA asked.”
“I think we should start from the bottom up and scrap the entire Patriot Act and rebuild something that protects liberty and security. But if that’s the only thing Congress can pass, it will be a step in the right direction. At the end of the day, it’s pretty simple, just follow the damn Constitution. That’s all we’re asking our federal agencies to do. And if they don’t, then it’s corrosive to our democracy.”
Freshman voice on a national stage
Not only was Lieu’s appearance on MSNBC forceful, it was quite remarkable for a freshman Congress member to get such a national profile, on such a key issue on such a historic day.
What was the backstory? According to Jack d’Annibale, Lieu’s Senior Advisor/Director of Communications, “Congressman Lieu’s staff worked hard to let producers at MSNBC know about his leadership voice on the issue of privacy. The Congressman was honored to join Chris Hayes on his program to talk about the crucial issue of protecting Americans’ Constitutional rights.”
For those of us accustomed to our former Rep. Henry Waxman having that kind of high profile on behalf of progressive issues and our district, this was very good news. Waxman served 40 years and built his profile over time. Who knew that it would so happen so soon for Lieu? The good news was not only that Lieu’s staff ‚Äî and the stance Lieu took on the issue ‚Äî¬†got him airtime. Rather, it was that his performance there means he’ll likely be invited back.
In a follow up interview I did for this column, Lieu also cited problems with Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which was initially written to allow the government to collect the communications of foreigners, but in practice, has led to a large quantity of American communications being scooped up with them. Once these communications ‚Äî not the metadata, but the actual content – are collected, the government searches through them for Americans’ content, but without a warrant.
In response, Lieu successfully co-sponsored an amendment on June 11 to the defense appropriations bill that would prevent funds from being used to query this data for U.S. citizens without a warrant. The amendment also would prohibit the use of appropriated funds by the NSA or CIA to require or request that United States persons and entities build security vulnerabilities “backdoors” into their products or services in order to facilitate government surveillance. Such security weaknesses can also be exploited by hackers and foreign governments, and they under consumer trust in American tech products.
Lieu also listed his concerns to me about proposed secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) 12-nation trade agreement, which has been kept from the American public, while large corporations have been at the TPP negotiating table for years.
On July 12, Lieu was one of over two hundred House members who cast historic ‘no’ votes that at least for now, prevent President Obama from receiving Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) to negotiate the TPP. Also known as ‘Fast Track’ authority, TPA would prevent the Congress from amending the TPP, and instead would only allow for a single up/down vote on it, once presented to them by the President.
Lieu’s concerns went beyond transparency, to concerns about the TPP’s lack of a currency provision, which he argued “means all enforcement mechanisms are ineffective, because countries can engage in mass cheating by manipulating their currency.” He also cited experience with other trade agreements, that had the effect of “hollowing out the middle class and leading to greater wage inequality by shipping jobs overseas and hurting the American worker.”
But perhaps most insidiously he cited the TPP’s “Investor-State Dispute Settlement,” or ISDS provision, that would allow foreign companies to challenge U.S. Laws ‚Äî and to potentially pick up huge payouts from taxpayers -without ever stepping foot in a U.S. court.
The ISDS would allow foreign companies to challenge any U.S. Law that protects public health, safety, the environment or workers, by arguing it unreasonably limited their profits ‚Äî from, say, Santa Monica’s Sustainability Rights of Nature ordinance, to water rationing on farm land owned by foreign investors here in drought-stricken California. If a company wins, the ruling can’t be challenged in U.S. courts, and secret arbitration panels can require American taxpayers to cough up millions ‚Äî even billions ‚Äî of dollars in damages, which would then also have a chilling effect on passing such future legislation.
Representing the district
With Santa Monica and the Westside’s overall liberal leanings, we’ve become used to especially strong progressive voices representing us over the years, both in Congress and the state legislature.
Before Waxman surprised many by unexpectedly announcing in January 2014 that he would not seek another term, most Santa Monicans only knew Lieu as the State Senator from the neighboring South Bay district (including Venice), who had been an early and strong voice supporting closure of Santa Monica airport (SMO) for environmental and safety reasons. But while we got a sense of Lieu on national issues as a candidate within a crowded filed of 16 to replace Waxman, it remained to be seen whether he would approach Waxman’s leadership role if elected. Early indications suggest that not only is Lieu in sync with the district on policy, but that he could develop into a nationally recognized voice over time.
And what about SMO? “I congratulate Santa Monica residents rejecting corporate-sponsored Measure D in the November 2014 elections,” which would have handicapped the City’s efforts to close part or all of SMO.
Lieu is also working together with Rep. Karen Bass from the neighboring district to facilitate a meeting with Santa Monica officials ‚Äî including Mayor Kevin McKeown ‚Äî and the FAA.
“The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to pay attention what the voters of Santa Monica are saying, as well as to the multiple studies showing the negative health effects of having an airport so close to homes.”
More than in most communities, Santa Monicans are used to direct democracy through initiative and referenda, as well as easy access to our municipal elected officials, who we informally see and talk with frequently at community events, the corner market, and by phone and email. But on the Congressional level, because of the absurdly large and populous nature of Congressional districts, and with the Representative working primarily in Washington, D.C., the logistics by definition make that process unavoidably more remote, despite the best intent, giving even more meaning to “serving in the public trust.”
Thus far, it seems Rep.¬†Lieu is taking that trust to heart.