Last week Americans began to learn that the FBI was using fictitious companies to secretly operate a small air force. It operated scores of low-flying planes across the country conducting video and cell phone surveillance.
Investigative reporters believe the surveillance flights are over a decade old, identifying “more than 100 flights since late April orbiting both major cities and rural areas.”
While the merits of this program will now be publicly debated, one thing is clear: It is deeply anti-democratic to keep such a program hidden all these years.
Our country is supposed to be governed by the people. Whether Americans want a federal law-enforcement agency conducting airborne surveillance on most of the country is a question that needs to be properly debated. In public. By our elected officials.
Instead, the executive branch has imposed its preferred policy in secret. Nearly all Americans were completely unaware of this choice.
We can thank the September 11 terrorist attacks for the alarming increase in power afforded to the executive branch.
In this respect, the terrorists won that day. In the blink of an eye our democracy was thrown out in favor of concentrating power in the hands of a few, in order to 'prevent terrorism'.
Demonstrating this is that many of the FBI’s supposed overseers in Congress don’t know much more bout the FBI secret air force than the public.
This becomes clear by examining the letters that legislators have written in recent days.
Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, demanded to be briefed this week on “the scope, nature, and purpose of these operations… and what legal authorities, if any, are being relied upon in carrying out these operations.”
In total, sixteen House members wrote to the FBI, pointing out that the president just signed a reform supposedly ending the bulk collection of phone records.
“It is highly disturbing,” they wrote, “to learn that your agency may be doing just that and more with a secret fleet of aircraft engaged in surveillance missions.”
There's plenty of shame to go around for running this program.
Shame on the FBI, for failing to inform the public and Congress.
But mostly shame on out of touch legislators for being utterly clueless about surveillance, the flights in particular and an agency they are supposed to be in control of.
The questions raised about the legal authority for the program and the privacy implications are yet another indication that legislators have been derelict in their duties.