- Preserving our freedom is one of the main reasons that
we are now engaged in this new war against terrorism. We will lose that
war without firing a shot if we sacrifice the liberties of the American
people. - Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.)
- A mere 45 days after the September 11th terrorist attacks,
President Bush signed into law the USA Patriot Act. A politician's dream
-- and a civil libertarian's nightmare -- the Patriot Act broadened the
already immense powers of the federal government, not only in regard to
investigations relating to terrorism but also to criminal investigations.
At some 342 pages, this massive, complex, highly technical 30,000-word
statute is divided into ten titles, with more than 270 sections and endless
subsections that cross-reference and amend a dozen or more different laws.
Most of our congressional representatives admitted that they did not even
read this monstrosity before they voted to pass it. Hidden within this
tome are provisions that turn the FBI, CIA and INS into secret police.
- Many Americans have reacted negatively to the Patriot
Act's Orwellian nature. Indeed, 234 cities, towns and counties have now
passed resolutions, ordinances or ballot initiatives prohibiting their
local police from complying with the Patriot Act. These people represent
an aggregate of some 34 million Americans.
- Thus, it was with some surprise that President Bush in
his State of the Union speech aggressively endorsed the Patriot Act as
"one of those essential tools" in the so-called war against terrorism.
Without citing a shred of evidence that the Patriot Act has been effective
in fighting terrorism, the President asked Congress to extend its term,
which is set to expire next year. Congress initially sunset the Patriot
Act to terminate after a five-year period for the simple reason that it
was only seen as an emergency measure.
- Why all the concern about the Patriot Act by millions
of Americans? Here are a few, among many, reasons for alarm.
- Under the Patriot Act, the definition of terrorism is
expanded to cover anyone or any group that tries to bring about change
for political or ideological reasons and uses any kind of force to bring
it about. This could range from nailing a poster to a courthouse door to
carrying a picket sign. Thus, the government now has the authority to harass
a broad range of political dissenters, ranging from Greenpeace to anti-abortion
protesters to environmental activists to the National Rifle Association.
- Under the Patriot Act, the government can, and most likely
already has, conducted black bag and sneak and peak searches. In other
words, government agents -- much like other authoritarian regimes -- can
now enter your apartment or home and look through your documents, computer
files and possessions ("sneak and peak") or take documents, files
and possessions ("black bag") without giving you notice that
they've ever been on your property.
- Also under the Patriot Act, the government has routine
access to your educational and financial/banking records as long as the
government asserts that snooping through your records is "related
to a terrorism investigation." What this means is that all a government
agent has to say to get access to your records is, "We're conducting
a terrorism investigation." And, believe it or not, your school or
bank cannot inform you that the government has gotten this information.
- The Patriot Act allows government agents to conduct document
searches and seizures of businesses as well. Moreover, any company, including
employers, libraries, Internet providers, banks, bookstores and video stores
must provide all records relating to the subject under investigation. Again,
these entities cannot inform anyone, including the suspect or the media,
that they have been rifling through their files. A violation of this provision
is a federal offense that can result in imprisonment.
- Under the Patriot Act, the government is allowed to conduct
roving wiretaps. Any judge can issue a wiretap order for a telephone line,
Internet line or e-mail system anywhere in the U.S. in order to follow
a targeted individual anywhere -- even if the individual is not named by
the government. Known as a "Doe" target, it means that if you
are labeled a suspected terrorist, any of your electronic communications
are continually monitored by the government. This obviously makes it easier
for the FBI -- using the powerful Internet spying technology called Carnivore
-- to monitor computers, read e-mails and track which web pages are visited
by American citizens with merely the say-so of an employer or university.
- There are many other intrusive and violative provisions
of the Patriot Act, which clearly and dramatically emasculates key provisions
of our Bill of Rights. Not only does it inhibit and chill free expression
by American citizens, it is also an intrusive violation of our privacy
and undermines the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution, which protects
against unreasonable searches and seizures. There was obviously some concern
about this by Congress, which is the reason that the Patriot Act was sunset
at five years.
- One day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon traumatized our nation, President Bush vowed, "We
will not allow this enemy to win the war by changing our way of life or
restricting our freedoms." Unfortunately, by becoming an aggressive
advocate of the Patriot Act, the President is doing just that.
- During Bush's State of the Union speech, he emphasized
that a key role of our government was to protect us from foreign terrorists.
However, if the Bush Administration continues to advocate such measures
as the Patriot Act, then an important question is raised: Who will protect
us from our own government?
- Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead
is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute.