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Lawmakers Slip Censorship Provisions into Pentagon Spending Bill
Proposals to silence military personnel from speaking to a civil rights group and purge the internet of certain information fly under the radar.
The biennial Pentagon budget reauthorization usually presents ample opportunities for wasteful spending, as lawmakers slip provisions into routine legislation that compels the government to purchase unnecessary and overpriced military equipment.
But this year, lawmakers have also quietly pushed changes to the National Defense Authorization Act that aim to silence military personnel and purge the internet of certain information.
One particularly alarming provision comes from Rep. Mike Turner, a Republican from Ohio, which prohibits the Department of Defense from engaging with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a civil rights group advocating for the separation of church and state.
MRFF represents service members of all religions and denominations, helping them report instances of inappropriate proselytizing and the presence of religious symbols in official military affairs. The organization has previously succeeded in having crusader imagery removed from a Marine squadron and a Bible taken down from display at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, Wyoming.
“It is unprecedented in American history that Congress has ever tried to basically extinguish or assassinate a civil rights organization,” said Mikey Weinstein, an attorney, and former Air Force officer who founded the group in 2005.
Under this provision, not only is Defense Department staff prohibited from communicating with MRFF or Weinstein, but the military is also barred from taking any action in response to "any claim, objection, or protest made by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation without the authority of the Secretary of Defense."
In an interview, Weinstein raised concerns about the impact on a current case involving a Jewish cadet or midshipman at a major military academy, questioning where they would turn for assistance. He emphasized that filing a grievance or simply contacting MRFF by phone could potentially result in a court-martial.
Weinstein believes that Turner holds a grudge against MRFF ever since the organization petitioned for the removal of a Bible from Wright Patterson Air Force Base, which is located in Turner's Ohio district. The amendment was added to the NDAA without any debate and received unanimous consent from the committee, indicating support from House Democrats as well.
The bill passed the House last Friday and now moves to the Senate, where lawmakers aim to exploit this must-pass legislation to advance another broad restriction on speech.
Senators Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, are preparing to introduce an amendment to the NDAA that would grant lawmakers extraordinary powers to censor a wide range of information on the internet.
This amendment allows lawmakers, their families, certain at-risk congressional staff, and even individuals living with lawmakers to demand the sweeping removal of specific "covered information." The Klobuchar-Cruz amendment defines "covered information" as personal details such as home addresses, secondary residences, personal email accounts, and cell phone numbers, as well as other personal information and sensitive travel information.
The amendment also grants the authority to erase private data collected by smartphones, apps, and other digital devices, citing concerns about the potential use of such information to target lawmakers' precise locations. While there are legitimate concerns regarding data brokers selling personal information, this law would bestow new privacy rights upon lawmakers that ordinary Americans, who may also face personal security risks, do not possess.
This amendment raises immediate issues related to press freedom. Journalists frequently report on instances of corruption involving money, jobs, and favors bestowed upon lawmakers' family members by special interest groups. In 2014, I was one of the first reporters to discuss Hunter Biden's unusual connections to Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy firm, which is now under congressional review over corruption concerns. Investigating such stories sometimes requires accessing private information during the news-gathering process.
Influence peddling is often shrouded in favors related to home residencies. In the decades preceding the 2008 housing crisis, the mortgage lender Countrywide dished out special low-interest home loans to senior lawmakers and federal housing officials, to bribe their way into lenient lending standards. Researching home loans could be difficult or impossible had this amendment been in place.
This amendment builds upon a law passed last year that grants significant new powers to federal judges and their families to censor private information on the internet. Both the new judicial law and the Klobuchar-Cruz measure include an exemption for journalistic inquiries. However, realistically, the exemptions are ornamental. The law would likely censor a broad range of information relevant to the media.
Platforms like Google will likely engage in broad censorship rather than adjudicate whether the information meets the media exemption. As the Freedom of the Press Foundation noted at the time, "disinterested online platforms have no stake in determining the newsworthiness of a post, and will comply with judicial demands rather than pay lawyers to fight about it."
The legislation responds to genuine security concerns faced by lawmakers. After all, a left-wing activist targeted GOP lawmakers, firing gunshots that injured Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., in 2017 in a rampage at a congressional baseball game. Last year, an armed man was arrested for threatening to kill Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., outside her home.
However, security concerns almost always serve as a pretext for encroaching upon free speech rights. Becoming an elected member of Congress entails a trade-off, offering incredible privileges and power in exchange for diminished privacy and increased public scrutiny. Lawmakers concerned about their safety have already enacted a special $2.1 billion security program to protect their offices and expand the U.S. Capitol Police force following the January 6 riot.
Critics have accused MRFF of being too confrontational, and some conservatives have gone as far as labeling the organization as "anti-Christian." Weinstein, who is Jewish, has dispelled these arguments and repeatedly emphasized that he represents no specific faith agenda and has even compelled a commander to remove atheist bumper stickers from their car. The majority of his clients, he says, are Christian service members. In the past, he has received death threats in response to his work.
Weinstein is a pugnacious and, at times, ornery figure, eager to fight for his clients and his organization’s mission with little regard for pleasantries. During the interview, Weinstein lashed out at “fundamentalist Christian nationalists” and let loose a stream of expletives about his detractors on Capitol Hill.
But freedom for Weinstein to communicate freely with the military, and for service members to rely on his civil rights organization to maintain a secular military, is at the heart of an open society, just as an open internet free from censorship is crucial even in the face of security threats for lawmakers.
There is a chance that the MRFF provision is stripped out as the House and Senate versions of the bill are merged, and the fate of the Klobuchar-Cruz amendment is still up in the air. If that fails, MRFF is assembling a legal team to challenge the provision.
Photo via Getty Images.