Americans claiming their Constitution

Published 8:05 pm Thursday, June 29, 2006

Congress’ legendary political philosopher, former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, said, “All politics is local.” And now, finally, many more local citizens around the country are concerned about their vanishing privacy. The disquietude began in November with the revelation that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on our phones and e-mail; but it gathered speed with the recent news that NSA is collecting millions of our phone records — calls to and from us — linking to other intelligence-agency databases that tell more than just the numbers.

In a USA Today/Gallup Poll, June 1-4, about half of those surveyed across the nation believe the Bush administration has “gone too far in expanding the power of the presidency.”

For example, Michael Bissonnette, mayor of Chicopee, Mass. — one of four of that state’s mayors on whose behalf the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy about the porous phone companies in league with the NSA — says:

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“Privacy is the civil-rights issue of our generation. I am requesting a hearing in order to uncover a matter of crucial importance to the privacy rights of my constituents — and the functioning of our democracy. … This is likely the greatest invasion of consumer privacy in our nation’s history.”

The ACLU has now filed similar complaints with regulatory agencies in more than 20 states. Among them was a complaint in Maine by 21 customers of Verizon, one of the companies named in USA Today’s May 11 original breakthrough story about the massive harvesting of our phone records. Protesting Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, Mass., also cites some of the questions being asked around the country.

“How is the intelligence community using those records? Is any of this legal? … Frankly, I’d prefer to focus on local issues, but this principle matters just as much here in Somerville as it does in Washington — or anywhere else in the country. If local action can help us determine whether national laws have been broken, then I’m happy to participate.”

So far, there have been nine town meetings on the phone-records dragnet in Massachusetts; and Carol Rose, the executive director of the state’s ACLU affiliate, tells me that people who remember the Senate Watergate hearings that sent Richard Nixon into retirement are asking, “Where is today’s Sam Ervin?”

That straight-talking Democratic senator from North Carolina chaired the Watergate hearings. He and Republican Howard Baker, a principled senator from Tennessee on the committee, riveted the attention of the nation on the same question that occupied much of the debate by the patriots at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in Philadelphia: What must be limits of the powers of the chief executive?

As Charles Mee wrote in “The Genius of the People” (Harpercollins, 1988) about those sweltering summer months in Philadelphia during which the convention’s proceedings were closed to the press — but James Madison took notes:

“None (of the delegates) wanted an executive who would use the excuse of sudden or continuing crisis to gather more and more powers to himself, to draw political power away from the states and communities to the central government — and, within the central government, away from the legislature and the judiciary to the office of the executive.”

This is exactly what is happening in the secrecy-shrouded administration of George W. Bush. But where is today’s Sam Ervin in Congress? Or a Howard Baker?

Mary Clare Higgins is the mayor of Northampton, Mass., where the Bill of Rights Defense Committee began in February 2002, and expanded throughout the country, pressing Congress to remember — and act on — the separation of powers. These Bill of Rights Defense Committees in eight states and 399 cities and counties remain actively involved in urging their representatives in the House and Senate to finally make the executive branch accountable for its steadily increasing abuses of power.

But Higgins also agrees with O’Neill that much more continued action is needed locally “to protect basic rights to privacy that people assume they have just by living in America.”

However, more Americans are realizing that privacy is no longer a safe assumption. So, says Mayor Higgins: “Since it appears that Congress will not have hearings on this (the anti-constitutional collusion between the phone companies and the National Security Agency), we have to use the evidence we have locally to do so. The sunlight of a public hearing is the best antidote to a government that acts in secret.”

And as this sunlight keeps spreading across the nation, Congress may at last rein in this administration that has lost sight of what it is to be an American. We are indeed in constant danger from terrorists; but we will prevail so long as we remain a free people — with leadership we can trust to keep us free under the Constitution we are fighting to keep safe.