The recent wave of disclosures about the National Security Agency (NSA)’s widespread surveillance of Americans’ electronic communications has cast renewed pressure on Congress to act to rein in the President’s authority in this area. Congressional action is essential if surveillance is to be cut down or subjected to more serious oversight, since the Constitution itself doesn’t necessarily offer much protection in this area.
A number of Republican Congressmen, particularly those identified with the Tea Party Movement, have been especially critical of the President and particularly vocal in denouncing the broad scope of this surveillance.
The surveillance is “an unprecedented intrusion into Americans’ personal phone records and potentially into their broader online activities”, says Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) warns he is “concerned you can go too far with something like this”.
“The #Obama Administration is trying to take our information again”, tweeted Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), adding a new catchy hashtag, “#ThisMustStop”. And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), perhaps the leader of the Tea Party in Congress (certainly at least in the Senate) has introduced the grandiose-sounding Fourth Amendment Restoration Act of 2013.
It purports to “stop the National Security Agency from spying on citizens of the United States”, and ‘finds’ that “the collection of citizen’s [sic] phone records is a violation of the natural rights of every man and woman in the United States”. (It’s worth noting that this bill isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. All it does is purport to interpret the Fourth Amendment, which is the job of the courts, not Congress. Even if it passes, and were signed by the President, it would be totally without legal effect.)
Someone reading these talking points would probably conclude that these gentlemen, and Republicans generally, want national security surveillance to focus more specifically on individuals suspected of wrongdoing, or to only take place where it is linked to a specific counterterrorism investigation.
That inference would be half-right: Republicans do indeed prefer focused surveillance to dragnet surveillance, but the main criteria they would use is not suspicion of wrongdoing, or connection with a terrorist organisation: it is the target’s ethnicity or religion.
The Republican Party – including the lawmakers who have complained loudest about the NSA’s pervasive electronic monitoring – has voiced no objection to widespread practices targeting Arab Americans and American Muslims not suspected of any wrongdoing.
The New York Police Department (NYPD), in conjunction with the CIA, monitored Arab American Muslims in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut at businesses and mosques in a surveillance operation that was disclosed by the Associated Press in August 2011.
Individuals and organisations were targeted for surveillance based on nothing more than their faith. In December 2011, 34 Members of Congress sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, urging the Justice Department “investigate the conduct of domestic counter-intelligence activities by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies”, and sent a similar letter to the House Judiciary Committee requesting an oversight hearing.
Not a single Republican signed on to these letters. In May 2012, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) introduced an amendment to the annual appropriations bill for the Department of Justice that would have prohibited the funding of police programs found to violate the US Constitution or federal anti-discrimination laws.
This seeming no-brainer of an amendment was overwhelmingly supported by Democrats, but it gathered a mere sixteen Republican votes and was ultimately defeated. One of those sixteen Republicans was Arab-American Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) who is also an outspoken critic of the NSA’s surveillance programs, has called for the resignation of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and has co-authored the LIBERT-E Act with fellow Michigander and Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee John Conyers.
Senator Paul - whose commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law is allegedly so fierce that earlier this year he waged a 13-hour filibuster about the use of drones on US soil - has called for greater surveillance of Arab Americans and American Muslims.
Paul supports reinstating the National Security Entry-Exit Registration (NSEERS) - a defunct discriminatory program of the Department of Homeland Security. NSEERS was implemented shortly after the September 11 attacks and relied on profiling individuals from a select list of Arab or Muslim countries.
This is a plain violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees all Americans - citizens and noncitizens alike - equal protection of the laws. And although Senator Paul has joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s lawsuit against NSA surveillance, he has been deafeningly silent with respect to their suit against the NYPD.
And Gohmert is well-known for his incoherent, bigoted drivel; recently he has offered the wise, eminently reasonable theory that the Obama Administration is filled with members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
It’s rather remarkable that self-proclaimed libertarians who denounce the Administration’s surveillance program as trampling on the rights of fellow Americans fail to utter a word when those same rights and protections are violated with respect to the Arab American and Muslim communities, who last we checked are just as American as these Congressmen.
Surely this selective outrage can’t be because these politicians care more about criticising President Obama than actually defending the constitutional rights of Americans. And of course they don’t think Arab and Muslim Americans are inferior to “real” Americans, or that the Constitution protects them less than their fellow citizens. Or do they?
Yasmine Taeb is the Government Relations Manager at the Arab American Institute.
You can follow Yasmine on twitter @YasmineTaeb
Isaac Levey: Isaac Levey is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and serves as a Legal Fellow at the Arab American Institute.
You can follow Isaac on twitter @LeveyIsLaw
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.