Cornyn to Obama: Shut down Snitch Central

Jon Henke asked when the White House debuted its effort to collect information on political dissenters, “What, exactly, does the White House plan to do with this information?”  A day later, John Cornyn has started asking the same thing from the Senate floor.  Cornyn accused Barack Obama of acting in an unprecedented manner to stifle legitimate political dissent — and wondered aloud how long Obama would have remained silent had George Bush tried it:

“I am not aware of any precedent for a president asking American citizens to report their fellow citizens to the White House for pure political speech that is deemed “fishy” or otherwise inimical to the White House’s political interests,” John Cornyn of Texas wrote US President Barack Obama.

“As Congress debates health care reform and other critical policy matters, citizen engagement must not be chilled by fear of government monitoring the exercise of free speech rights,” he wrote. …

“I can only imagine the level of justifiable outrage had your predecessor asked Americans to forward emails critical of his policies to the White House,” Cornyn wrote, referring to former president George W. Bush.

“I suspect that you would have been leading the charge in condemning such a program — and I would have been at your side denouncing such heavy-handed government action,” he wrote.

As it happens, Bush didn’t — but he did try to launch a program to generate information on potential terrorist activity in the days after 9/11.  Bush started Operation TIPS, with a toll-free hotline, e-mail, and website access for people who wanted to pass information on suspicious activity to the FBI.  As The Anchoress recalls, the Left acted as though Bush had called forth the Ghost of Orwell himself and created Big Brother.  The Village Voice’s Nat Hentoff reported at the time on the reaction in Congress, from both Democrats and Republicans:

After strong protests around the country, including in the Voice, TIPS was reportedly scaled back somewhat; but, as Leahy said last month, “it was unclear whether these changes reflected actual changes in the Justice Department’s plans, or whether they were simply cosmetic differences designed to blunt opposition to the program.”

At no time did the Justice Department indicate how it planned to train this horde of amateur spies. Accordingly, as Leahy emphasized, “such a setup could have allowed unscrupulous participants to abuse their new status to place innocent neighbors under undue scrutiny.” Much worse yet, the names of these innocent suspects would be transferred by the Justice Department to FBI, CIA, and other government databases that are now permitted to exchange “intelligence” information under the Homeland Security Act.

Bear in mind that Operation TIPS intended to get data about potential crimes and acts of terrorism.  It differed not at all from a myriad of local hotline tip programs used by police around the country to solve or stop crimes.  Given the nature of the 9/11 attacks — conducted by infiltrators who lived in the US for months in preparation for their mass murders — the establishment of the same system for a counterterrorist effort seemed like a no-brainer.

Obama, on the other hand, has set up a snitch line not for crimes or terrorism, but for simple political dissent. Where is Pat Leahy now?  Shouldn’t he be demanding to know why Obama wants to put people under “undue scrutiny” merely for the horrible crime of disagreeing with the President?  For that matter, where is the Village Voice and Nat Hentoff?  So far, the Voice has shown little interest in this administration’s snooping by proxy.

Cornyn should not the the only Republican on the Senate floor demanding answers, and Obama shouldn’t be the only one asked for them.  Pat Leahy should be providing a few of them as well.

Update: But is it illegal?  Byron York says probably not:

Senate Judiciary Committee lawyers studying the proposal say that although there is no absolutely settled law on the matter, the White House plan is likely not covered by the Privacy Act, which prohibits government agencies from keeping any records “describing how any individual exercises rights guaranteed by the First Amendment unless expressly authorized by statute or by the individual about whom the record is maintained.”  Therefore, it appears the White House can legally keep records of the emails and other communications it receives in response to Phillips’ request.

Those lawyers also point out that the White House is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, which means it would not have to release any information on the plan to members of the public who make a request.

In addition, the lawyers say the collected emails likely will be covered by the Presidential Records Act, which requires the White House to preserve and maintain its records for permanent storage in a government database.  Phillips’ request suggests that whatever information the White House receives on health-care reform “disinformation” will be used to further the goal of passing a national health-care makeover, which is, of course, one of the president’s main policy initiatives.  Such material, and whatever the White House does with it, would qualify as presidential records. Only after more than a decade would such records be publicly available.

“So the White House, whether by design or accident, has requested information from the public that will become ‘records’ under the Presidential Records Act, yet would be impermissible for any government to otherwise collect under the Privacy Act,” writes one Judiciary Committee source.  “Where were the lawyers in all of this?  What is their legal basis for authorizing the collection of these records?”

Perhaps Congress needs to pass an Enemies List Law, since that’s exactly what this is.  Note that only Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee seem concerned by this — even though Leahy chairs that committee.