The attacks on Americans' freedoms began slowly to be rebuffed last week – not on a foreign battlefield but in changes of government policy. A federal court ruling and two course corrections by the Obama administration narrow the criteria for when Americans can be spied on or otherwise treated as suspects, and how long someone has to be punished for committing certain nonviolent crimes. Together, the actions should start restoring liberties nibbled away at in the bid to catch criminals – foreign and domestic – and rebuilding trust in government transparency.
Concerns over domestic spying on U.S. citizens recently resurfaced after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, now hiding in Russia, disclosed the government could be collecting records of virtually all the cellphone calls and Internet communications of ordinary Americans.
The steps announced by President Barack Obama to modify the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act won't stop surveillance, but they will let the public in on the government's legal justifications for it. There will be an independent review panel; reforms to sections of the Patriot Act are promised. Obama has also acknowledged flaws in how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court operates – in secrecy, hearing only the government's side, and without disclosing its rulings.
In announcing the changes, the president wouldn't go so far as to credit whistleblower Snowden. But Snowden's disclosures clearly generated a fresh wave of justifiable concern about intrusions into Americans' privacy, beginning when former President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law.
Another victory for individual rights came with a federal judge's ruling against the New York City Police Department's "stop-and-frisk" program. U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, declaring that officers routinely stop blacks and Hispanics "who would not have been stopped if they were white," called it a "policy of indirect racial profiling" and said it violates minority rights.
Of the nearly 700,000 police stops made last year, an estimated 85 percent were African-American or Hispanic. Also of concern to the judge was a statement by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly that 70 to 75 percent of the people committing violent crimes are African-American.
The judge didn't call for an end to the practice, but asked a federal monitor to oversee compliance with the Constitution. Police officers in at least five precincts will be required to wear cameras so encounters can be reviewed.
An angry Kelly called the judge's claims "offensive." Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who credits the policy with lowering the crime rate, plans to appeal. But New York City Police Department statistics, revealed on Sunday's "Meet the Press," show that of 4.4 million stops made between 2004 and 2012, 88 percent resulted in no further law enforcement action. All but 10 percent of the stops were of African-Americans or Hispanics.
The ruling underscores the need for a justice system that protects the rights of the vulnerable against the excesses of the powerful.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder took a different stab at reforming one of last century's most counterproductive criminal justice policies in announcing that the Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent federal drug crimes and that federal prosecutors will have more discretion in charging people.
Under federal sentencing guidelines passed in the 1980s, drug felons must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences and are not eligible for parole. The total sentence is computed based on the quantity of the controlled substance and prior drug felonies. With two prior convictions, the sentence can become life.
Holder's move will save money, shrink the prison population and prevent the system from gobbling up more nonviolent addicts like John Koontz of Des Moines. He's been in prison for meth and amphetamine possession since age 40, and won't be out until he's 62, though his mother, Fran, says he hasn't used drugs for more than 15 years.
These three reconsiderations, while not radical reforms, are small, incremental steps toward a more just society and ones that better balance the rights of individuals with the necessary goals of preventing crime and further terrorist attacks. The ends do not always justify the means. And fighting foreign wars in the name of defending American freedoms will be for naught unless we also defend them at home.
Contact Rekha Basu, a Des Moines Register columnist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.