Last week the US House of Representatives voted 257 to 171 to permanently extend virtually all of the key provisions of the USA Patriot Act–a cornerstone of the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism strategy. The Act was scheduled to expire December 31. The Senate will consider the measure this fall.
The Act expands the government’s power to conduct secret searches, demand library records, and eavesdrop. Extension of the Patriot Act is a sad day for civil liberties.
The Patriot Act gives the government the power to access your tax records, credit records, library records, bookstore records, and medical records without probable cause. It also gives the government the power to break into your house and conduct secret searches without your knowledge–all in the name of “protecting national security.”
More specifically, the Patriot Act allows federal agents to:
-with a warrant, seize unopened voice mail
-share foreign intelligence from wiretaps
-conduct electronic surveillance and court-upervised wiretaps in terrorism investigations
-obtain judicial search warrants that are valid nationwide
-obtain wiretaps in terrorism and espionage probes that last for a year
The House passed a 10-year extension of provisions that will:
-permit “roving wiretaps” in espionage and terrorism investigations
-allow the FBI to seek a court order to obtain records from businesses, libraries, or gun stores
Section 215 of the Patriot Act is particularly offensive. It allows the FBI to order any person or entity to turn over “any tangible things,” so long as the FBI specifies that the order is “for an authorized investigation…to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”
Section 215 greatly expands the FBI’s power to spy on ordinary individuals living in the United States, including United States citizens and permanent residents. The FBI is not required to show probable cause, or even reasonable grounds to believe, that the person whose records it is seeking is engaged in criminal activity. The FBI need not have any suspicion that the subject of the investigation is an agent of a foreign power.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act also allows the FBI to investigate United States citizens because of their exercise of First Amendment rights. For example, the FBI could undertake surveillance simply because they don’t like the web sites the individual visits or the books she reads. They could spy on her because she wrote a letter to the editor critical of federal policy. In addition, those served with Section 215 orders–such as bookstores and libraries–are prohibited from disclosing this fact to anyone else. Subjects of this surveillance are never notified.
The Patriot Act is a dangerous piece of legislation, bordering on hysteria. In my view, its provisions clearly violate the 4th amendment’s protection against search and seizure and the 5th amendment’s protection against self-incrimination. The Patriot Act brings the United States closer to being a police state.
Many may feel that that Patriot Act’s infringement of liberty is a small price to pay in the war against terrorism, and that they have nothing to hide. To those I would cite the letter from Pastor Martin Niemoller, a survivor of the Nazi death camps:
“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
Ted Rueter is an assistant professor of political science