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The President Is Wrong: The USA Patriot Act Should Be Terminated

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.)
by John W. Whitehead
01/26/2004


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. He can be contacted at  johnw@rutherford.org.
 http://www.rutherford.org/articles_db/commentary.asp?record_id=262