The U.S.A. Patriot Act, the largest expansion of government search and surveillance powers in U.S. history, passed Congress without much dissent soon after the September 11 attacks. Let’s just say people had other things on their minds than the small print of a 300-page bill that John Ashcroft & Co. assured would protect us. After all, one thing we pretty much all agreed on after 9/11 was that we needed protecting.
Two years later, people are starting to twig that Patriot may take away more freedom than it shields. “May,” because nobody really knows what the Patriot Act means in practice. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about the law and its effects have been blocked or half-answered in the name of national security. It doesn’t help that proponents say Patriot is the best thing that’s ever happened to the United States, while critics say it’s effectively a charter for a police state.
So, as far as we know, what does Patriot really mean for constitutional rights?
Nothing good. Patriot gives the federal government and local investigators unprecendented surveillance powers over American citizens. That much we know. It allows access to personal information, gives the OK to secret search and surveillance, and allows coordination and information-sharing between law enforcement agencies. The moustachioed mug of “Big Brother” hovers over the whole enterprise. Critics, who span the political spectrum, say Patriot is unconstitutional and paves the way for all sorts of abuses of immigrants, South Asians, Arabs, and troublesome political activists.
But you don’t have to be an Arab dissident to be worried. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and many public librarians (with whom you do not want to mess) are freaking out about section 215 — a provision that lets law enforcement poke around in your personal records. Dahlia Lithwick and Julia Turner of Slate report that, under 215, everything from an individual’s religious to medical records can be searched without his or her knowledge (including video and library rentals, medical information, and even phone calls). Of course, the feds argue this is all to Protect Against Terrorism.
Under section 218, secret searches (and seizures) are justified on the grounds of (cue sinister voice) “foreign” ties. Here’s Lithwick:
“Now you can be subject to secret searches authorized by a secret court so long as there is any foreign intelligence component (and increasingly, drug-related offenses are deemed to have a terrorist component).”
Even if the feds (or a local law enforcement agency, or both) can’t make the foreign connection, they can still search homes and property without prior notice if “immediate notification of the execution of the warrant may have an adverse result.” As predicted by whose crystal ball? Section 213 makes it legal to secretly search and wiretap or video any criminal investigation — not just terrorist investigations.
Because Patriot-related activity comes under the umbrella of “national security,” the government can keep mum about who is being investigated. The ACLU reports that thousands of South Asian and Arab men have been interrogated and held indefinitely without cause. Slate notes that under 215, you’d never know if your records were disclosed.
A backlash is in the works. Some lawmakers have joined civil liberties groups and local and state governments in opposing Patriot’s more invasive provisions. So far, 152 communities, including three states, have passed resolutions opposing the law. The ACLU was the first to file a lawsuit, charging Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Rober Mueller with violating the First Amendment, according to Wired. And the House voted 309-118 to de-fund the “sneak-and-peek” searches set forth in Section 218.
But two years after September 11, Attorney General John Ashroft is on the offensive with a 16-city tour to sell Patriot as “a vital safeguard of American lives.” But even Bush-backer Doug Thompson of Capitol Hill Blue has his doubts:
“Ashcroft took the President’s order [to prevent a repeat of 9/11] as carte blanche to abandon the Constitution and create his own totalitarian government, one where rights to privacy no longer exists, where due process is expendable and where checks and balances get in the way.
Nobody knows for sure how many innocent Americans got caught up in this post 9-11 frenzy because Ashcroft uses the secrecy provisions of the law to block information requests and those detained cannot contact lawyers or family.”
There’s no predicting how all this will play out, but the Patriot Act contains a lesson for lawmakers and citizens alike: Next time the Justice Department proposes to safeguard our freedoms, look at the small print.