The Patriot Act: An Attack on Civil Liberties

The Patriot Act is a U.S. law passed in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Its purpose was to strengthen domestic security and broaden the powers of government agencies with regards to identifying and stopping terrorists. In the wake of recent events, a firestorm of concern once again surrounds the Patriot Act.

The Patriot Act remains extremely controversial but those with civil liberty concerns have always been trumpted by its supporters. Supporters claim that it’s been instrumental in investigations and arrests of terrorists, while critics claim the act gives the government way too much power, as it threatens civil liberties and undermines the very democracy it seeks to protect.

The Patriot Act’s full name is Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. It’s divided into 10 different sections, and it covers a lot of ground. A summary follows:

Title I – This section [attacks] pertains to the protection of civil liberties. It authorizes federal money to accomplish much of the act’s provisions and authorizes the Secret Service to create a nationwide electronic crime task force.

Title II – This section expands the authority of law-enforcement agencies to conduct [unconstitutional] surveillance on agents [including American citizens] of foreign powers.” It allows the interception of communications if they’re related to terrorist activities and allows law-enforcement agencies to share information related to terrorist activities [anything deemed as such] with federal authorities. Title II authorizes [secret] roving surveillance by any means available to intercept a person’s communications [Facebook, personal e-mail, Internet, personal records, etc.], Further, it allows the government to order files from your communications services such an Internet service [IP addresses, login times and sites visited]. It also allows delayed notification of search warrants, including searches of your home [while you are not present] and you would not be notified of the search until after it was carried out.

Title III – This section of the Patriot Act is aimed at cutting off the financial support of terrorist groups.

Title IV – This section has provisions that strengthen border security.

Title V – The most important part of Title V is the use of National Security Letters (NSL). An NSL is a demand for the release of information and paperwork related to a person under investigation. The Patriot Act makes NSLs much stronger [and unconstitutional], and allows them to be used against U.S. citizens and contains a gag order preventing the target of the NSL from ever knowing about it or telling anyone else about it. There is no judicial review or need for probable cause when an NSL is requested and issued. This was used in attempts to try to force four librarians to turnover library records of Americans.

Title VI – This section contains provisions for providing financial compensation to victims of terrorism and their families.

Title VII – Authorization and budgeting for increased sharing of information between law-enforcement agencies and jurisdictions are contained in this section.

Title VIII – This portion of the Patriot Act adds several crimes to the list of things considered acts of terrorism.

Title IX – This section creates a method for the sharing of national intelligence information between government agencies.

Title X – The final section of the Patriot Act contains a number of relatively minor, miscellaneous provisions.

The Patriot Act has come under fire for a number of obvious reasons. It was passed too quickly (just over a month after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks), with little Congressional time reading and debating the act. By some accounts, less than 48 hours passed between the presentation of the bill’s final wording and the law passing in both houses of Congress. It doesn’t appear the act was actually read by members of Congress. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, was the only senator to vote against the act, while several members of the House of Representatives joined his dissent. Most critics contend that such a crucial and sweeping piece of legislation deserved more thorough deliberation but those claims have fallen on deaf ears.

The Patriot Act reduces and/or destroys many of the civil liberties enjoyed in the United States and guaranteed by the Constitution. The biggest infringements dismantle the right to privacy and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. The act gives expansion of the government’s ability to conduct wiretaps and perform searches without notification. The detainment of material witnesses and terrorist suspects without access to lawyers violates/erodes the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, rights of due process and trial by jury, respectively.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was created in response to ongoing activities by President Bush that threatened civil liberties. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) was created to oversee requests for surveillance warrants against suspected [foreign] intelligence agents. Activities of this court tend to be rubber stamped and are seldom denied. In light of the current data mining of mass information of Americans, the power amassed by the court is chilling. It is also interesting to note that [Americans] are the new target of the data collection activities of the NSA.

Critics correctly charge that the Patriot Act unfairly expands the powers of the executive branch and strips away many crucial checks and balances. The creation of the National Security Agency (NSA) and its overreach is chilling. The use of the FISA system threatens the freedoms of Americans.

The Patriot Act and its use by the NSA pose the largest threat to civil liberties in recent times. The longer this law is permitted to stand, the more a serious threat is posed to our democracy.

Where was the outcry from Republicans when they quickly “rubber stamped” approved the Patriot Act, NSA, FISA and FISC? It is no surprise that it now becomes a problem for Republicans when President Obama uses the power they created.

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