Waiting For Sunset: The Patriot Act

9.22.2004

Is Big Brother Watching? You May Never Know.

Seeing as though the Patriot Act is such a long piece of legislation, 342 pages to be exact, I've taken it upon myself to try and point out some of the more intrusive policies that have the ACLU and many cities upset. One of the biggest complaints about the Patriot Act is that it violates our privacy, and worse, without us even knowing about it. Though laws that existed before the Patriot Act did allow similar surveillance without prior knowledge, what has changed is that the Patriot Act allows this sort of access with fewer obstacles. Here are some examples.

Section 215 allows the government to access secretly from third party holders your private finance, library, travel, video rental, phone, medical, church, synagogue, and mosque records as long as it credits the search to protecting terrorism. Prior to this act, the a search could only be authorized with a warrant citing probable cause. Now, the judge has no authority to reject an inquiry. Section 213 allows for secret searches of your home and property without prior notice—and without a warrant. This undermines the original 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (
FISA), which only extended no-warrant searches to a small number of cases, specifically those linked to foreign espionage. With the Patriot Act, the government can reason that it's trying to gather any foreign intelligence on all Americans.

Another dangerous provision of the act is Section 214, where the government can wiretap your phone and see all the incoming calls without a warrant, as long as it certifies the information relevant to an investigation of terrorism. Again, this can be done without your knowledge. Further, Section 206 authorizes roving taps. Roving taps are not specific to a single phone, but to every possible phone or computer that the person in question might encounter. Theoretically, this gives the government full priveleges to all communications made by a device, even if it is not that specific user (e.g. a main phone tapped in an office). Section 505, similar to 215 listed above, can force third party holders of personal records to turn them over with a simple national security letter from the attorney general or a delegate, even if the citizen is not suspected to be involved in espionage (this subpoena requires no probable cause or judicial oversight). This broadens the number of citizens who can be subject to this search with little resistance in receiving authorization.

Spawning from Section 802 is the new category of crime called "domestic terrorism," which puts in danger political protesters in our country. This section makes punishable activities that "involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States" if the person's intent is to "influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." The creation of a new type of crime has serious implications, especially if it may hamper one's right to protest.

As a last, rather relevant provision to this medium, there is Section 216. This provides that tapping phones applies to the Internet as well. Yes, that means that the government can trace your dialing, routing, and signaling, and they can find out what sites you browse. Before the Patriot Act, internet surveillance was essentially unregulated, but under this piece of legislation, it has been defined.

These are just a few of the controversies that the Patriot Act has engendered, according to angry civil rights activists who feel their rights have been threatened. If you would like to read more about the acts' effects on our lives, the ACLU has a fact
sheet.

Tax Dollars Well Spent?

In the news recently, Attorney General John Ashcroft's use of funds for the Patriot Act tour has been called into question. The 32-city tour was launched in August 2003 to defend the act against its critics, who contend that the Patriot Act puts many of our civil liberties in danger. The first tour was the 16-city Patriot Act tour, and the second tour was the Life and Liberty tour, also for 16 cities. Speaking at events scheduled for each city, Ashcroft outlined how the Patriot Act was helping to reduce terrorism, its necessity in preventing any future attacks, and emphasized its harmlessness on citizens' rights.

The tour had receieved a lot of criticism at its birth, with libertarians saying it was propaganda to convince the public that the act was not taking away any of their individual freedoms, when in fact, some provisions are actually questionable. One of the most stinging criticisms was that the tour was only necessary because of the Patriot Act's rather troubling policies of secret searches and bolder spying techniques. But supporters of the act responded to the criticisms by stating that the purpose of the Patriot Act was to get rid of all the myths and to tell the truth to the American public about its provisions. Instead of having rumors and misconceptions about the policies enacted as a part of the Patriot Act, the Bush Administration found it a tactic to inform the uninformed.

Now, there are fresh new criticisms about Ashcroft's Patriot Act tour, but this time, it's about spending. U.S. Representative John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, asked Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine to investigate the price tag on the tour. Conyers claims that Ashcroft broke laws that do not allow executive branch officials to perform publicity campaigns and grassroots lobbying, unless authorized by Congress. The Justice Department responded by saying that the Office of Legal Counsel had cleared the trips, and Ashcroft was on this tour for the people. No decision has been made on the request for an investigation; however, it was revealed on Tuesday in a review by congressional investigators at the Government Accountability Office that the tour had cost at least $208, 130. The first tour cost $152, 361 while the second cost $47, 138. In addition, the construction of the Department of Justice's website promoting the Patriot Act cost $8, 630.

Funding a multi-city tour with taxpayers' money seems rather unfair, to say the least. Whether or not there is a serious investigation that results in a probe into Ashcroft's Patriot Act tour spending will depend on several things, one being how precisely publicity campaigns and grassroots lobbying are defined by that law. But really, how confident could the Bush Administration be in a piece of legislation that is working so well to fight off terrorism if they found it necessary to have a promotional tour? Things like music concerts, new products, and competitive companies need advertising and publicity, not laws that we vote to enact. Though dispelling the myths might have been necessary, perhaps it would have been a better idea to more comprehensively inform the public prior to voting in the laws so that none of those false rumors would be flying around to begin with. More than the legality of the tours, though, is the fact that Ashcroft's tour was so expensive. Those are some valuable tax dollars being spent on something that doesn't seem as vital as other things such as, let's say, education, or healthcare, or anything else of that nature.

9.19.2004

How Patriotic Are You?

Formally named, the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001," the Patriot Act was passed just 45 days after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Though there was virtually no dissent within the Senate or House of Representatives in the vote, cities across the country are rising up against the act. To date, there are about 4 states and 352 cities and counties that have taken measures to protect their civil liberties from the Patriot Act. The Department of Justice states that the Patriot Act is necessary to ensure full protection of our country against future terrorist attacks; that without these measures, there will inevitably be episodes. However, the act has many parts that questionably threaten the civil liberties that we as citizens should enjoy and have been granted.

If you haven't read the actual text of the
Patriot Act, which is over 300 pages, you might want to browse through some of it to get a general overview of its provisions if you have the time. Otherwise, there are some handy places, such as the ACLU's overview, where you can find out some of the act's more troubling provisions. In later posts I will go through some of the controversies.


The Department of Justice constructed its own site as a
counterattack on all the fear-mongering caused by groups against the Patriot Act. The DOJ states that Congress only made minor changes to already existing laws in order to better serve the country in this post-9/11 world of rampant global terrorism. As far as the government's track record on keeping down terrorism, the DOJ attests that over 150 terror threats have been identified and disrupted, nearly 2/3 of Al Qaeda's known senior leadership has been captured or killed, 191 individuals have been convicted or pled guilty in the United States, and more. The Patriot Act has been instated to help the government gather and cultivate detailed knowlege on terrorism in the United States, dismante the terrorist financial network, and basically, provide a safer America. For more on how the DOJ is using the Patriot Act to help us, click here.

Still, how can we be so sure as to the accuracy of these claims? The Bush Administration cites the current state of affairs, that we have not had any major terror attacks, yet just how much of that is because of this Patriot Act and other security measures and what can be attributed to the lack of terror plots? Most likely, we'll never know, but in the meantime, we have the Patriot Act to wonder mull over.

As functioning American citizens, we have rights to exercise and protect. We put trust in our government to guarantee those rights. According to Hobbesian theory, we give up some freedoms in order to benefit from other freedoms, and this keeps society in check and prevents anarchy. There is a point where the rights traded in for others may be incongruous to guaranteeing fredoms, and this raises questions on how trustworthy the government is. So then it comes down to this: how much are we inclined to willingly give up and, is it worth it? But then again, how could we really say no to being patriotic?