THIS IS STILL AMERICA, RIGHT?
We still care about things like “civil rights,” right? Do all of us still hold notions of personal privacy and government accountability dear? When we watch or read the news, does our nation still really, honestly, believe that power corrupts and, except in rare instances, secrecy does little more than hide criminal acts?
I’m just not feeling it anymore. Lately, we seem to be just going through the motions on the whole issue of government overreach in the arena of “national security” because we think that’s what everyone expects of “Americans.” In fact, I think the majority of us are really just scared of the world (especially the poor parts) and deep down would do everything we can and put our boots down on however many throats it takes to make sure that we can get the iThing and gas up our crossovers every Saturday.
I thought about all this over the weekend after Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz’s office emailed over a note saying he was signing on as a co-sponsor to something called the FISA Court Reform Act of 2013. The bill, which already has 14 sponsors (all Democrats) seeks to reign in some (but not all) of the excesses in the current secret “court” that approves (it never denies) the federal government’s surveillance requests.
“The right to privacy is one of our country’s most valued democratic rights, and I am committed to making sure government does not encroach on that right,” said Senator Brian Schatz, D–Hawaii, in an Aug. 1 press release. “I opposed reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act because it failed to provide transparency, accountability, and reasonable limits on surveillance. With this bill, we will begin to make this process more transparent, and have the opportunity to reinvigorate trust and confidence in our country’s respect for privacy and civil liberties.”
Schatz is right, but given recent events, it’s clear that FISA is just one portion of the massive national security state that we’ve allowed to create in this country. Though journalists are pleased that the government didn’t find U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning guilty of “aiding the enemy” after he gave a boatload of secret documents to Wikileaks, the young man who just wanted Americans to know what their government was doing with their tax dollars in places like Iraq is still facing more than a century of imprisonment.
And by now, everyone on the planet with access to a TV and/or Twitter has heard of Edward Snowden, who traded his cushy post as a National Security Agency contractor here in Hawaii for Russia after making public PRISM, a government surveillance super-program that shows safeguards like FISA do virtually nothing to protect normal citizens from surveillance. Though Russia has a brutal reputation for dealing harshly with its own whistleblowers, Snowden probably thought life there would be preferable to that spent in an American solitary confinement prison cell.
Can we even have America these days without massive government secrecy and espionage on, well, everyone? This is, after all, a nation that without discussion or any sense of irony decided long ago that contract law trumps the Constitution’s guaranteed protection of the Freedom of Speech. Seriously, there is no surprise that the NSA is as large or as powerful as it is–this is the land of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), where the term “public document” is a bitter joke.
“No one thinks about non-disclosure contracts as a NatSec State weapon because they aren’t as sci-fi sexy/scary as the cutting-edge technologies used to spy on people,” Mark Ames wrote in the superb essay “Nondisclosure Nation,” which ran in the July 2013 issue of NSFWCORP and details the sad history of American courts using NDAs to squeeze whistleblowers who tried to leak secret information about crimes and corruption carried out by the U.S. Government. “Non-disclosures don’t have that techno-dystopia novelty offered by PRISM or drones… [Secrecy contracts] are the modern national security state’s weapon of choice against the public, the key to keeping everyone in the dark, powerless, fearful, depoliticized, and afraid to stand up for themselves.”
* * *
DAVID CAIN BLASTS DEFERRAL AGREEMENTS
Back in our Jan. 17, 2013 issue, we ran a cover story on “deferral agreements”–deals the County of Maui used to strike with those who wanted to divide up their land into three lots or less. The landowners could pay for sidewalk, pavement, curb and/or gutter improvements right then or defer the payment.
How many of these agreements exist, and the amount of money owed to the county are huge unknowns, which is what spurred our cover story. What helped us was that West Maui resident Chris Salem, who has spent a dozen years researching the issue (largely because he says he’s in danger of losing his home due to problems associated with these agreements), have us an inch-thick stack of documents detailing just about everything we ever wanted to know about deferral agreements.
Turns out Salen has also retained attorney David Cain of the Wailuku firm Cain & Herren in a bankruptcy case. At the Aug. 2 Maui County Council hearing, councilmembers took up County Communication 13-238, which consisted of an extraordinary letter from Cain to the council calling for a full investigation into deferral agreements.
“Over the last decade, vast amounts of public funds have been unnecessarily spent defending illegitimate decisions by County Directors,” Cain wrote in his June 25 letter to the Council. “The loss of public funds could have been avoided.”
According to Cain’s letter, “the immense personal expense of exposing the exploited loopholes in the Maui County code, conflicting relationships between the County administration, Corporation Counsel, and private interests, has my client’s family on the verge of losing everything they have worked for, including their home through foreclosure.” Cain added that “While the public interest has been served by my clients’ unveiling of the previously unaccounted for developer financial obligations, the unnecessary damages my client has suffered are unacceptable. My client and my firm do not seek recourse against the County of Maui to cause further harm to the people of Maui County. The recovery must occur from the parties responsible.”
Cain’s letter went on to detail much of the same deferral agreement history Salem relayed to this paper. It pulls no punches.
“For decades Corporation Counsel has prevented the Council from performing their duties established under the Maui County Charter,” Cain wrote. “By concealing developer contractual agreements and conflicting private developer client relationships, Corporation Counsel is responsible for the ongoing frustration of legitimate functions of the Maui County Council.”
At the County Council Hearing on Aug. 2, members voted to defer the matter over the Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, which Riki Hokama chairs (Hokama also originally placed Cain’s letter on the County Council agenda). There’s no word as yet to when or even if that committee will hold a hearing on Cain’s letter or the issue of deferral agreements in general, but here’s hoping they do so.