Time to Revisit the Patriot Act
This past week, several revelations have been made public regarding digital surveillance being conducted by the NSA involving both telephone records and internet activity in the United States and abroad. This activity has been justified under provisions of the .USA PATRIOT Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks. The law passed the House overwhelmingly and the Senate by a vote of 98-1, with one abstention. The vote cast against it in the Senate was by Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who did so saying, in part:
Some have said rather cavalierly that in these difficult times we must accept some reduction in our civil liberties in order to be secure.
Of course, there is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. If we lived in a country that allowed the police to search your home at any time for any reason; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your email communications; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to hold people in jail indefinitely based on what they write or think, or based on mere suspicion that they are up to no good, then the government would no doubt discover and arrest more terrorists.
But that probably would not be a country in which we would want to live. And that would not be a country for which we could, in good conscience, ask our young people to fight and die. In short, that would not be America.
Preserving our freedom is one of the main reasons that we are now engaged in this new war on terrorism. We will lose that war without firing a shot if we sacrifice the liberties of the American people.
The full speech Feingold delivered on the floor of the Senate in 2001 is included in the article linked to below regarding his opposition to the bill. Though Feingold was swept out of office in the Great Purge of Sanity from the Halls of Congress (otherwise known as the 2010 mid-term elections), he continued to oppose the law, being joined by a few others when the it came up for renewal in 2006. The law also received Congressional renewal in 2011. Each renewal has seen increasing opposition and attempts to increase transparency as well as oversight of government surveillance activities, but the main statute remains intact until it is next due to be renewed in 2015. Both President Bush and Obama have signed the legislation when it came to them from Congress.
Concerns over civil liberty protections and Constitutionality of various provisions of the law have been extremely muted in the past. The rush to insure the ability of the government to effectively prevent a repeat of the 9/11 attacks contributed to the relative lack of public discussion of the ramifications of the legislation. Who wanted to be seen in those days as voting against “Patriotism” and protecting the American people? The fact that members of Congress have oversight responsibilities is seen as a protection against abuse of authority. That the FISA courts are supposed to approve of actions designed to gather intelligence designed to thwart terrorist attacks and arrest and prosecute those guilty of planning and/or carrying them out is seen as a further check on the agencies involved.
The scope and magnitude of these programs has been questioned in the past, perhaps most notably back in 2005 when it was revealed that the Bush Administration had been carrying out warrantless surveillance of telephone and email correspondence without seeking permission of the FISA court. The entire enterprise is shrouded in an enormous degree of secrecy, due to the nature of what the government wants to accomplish. As President Obama correctly pointed out in a speech last week, you can’t tell the terrorists everything you are doing to stop them, or they’ll be able to counteract your measures.
One of the problems with all this secrecy is that, despite all the so-called oversight and safeguards in place to prevent abuse of these powers, it depends to a large degree on trust. We are being asked to trust each and every part of the machinery that is keeping us in the dark as to exactly what they are doing to keep us safe from harm. It isn’t just a matter of trusting President Obama or President Bush or the members of the Congressional Intelligence Committees, it’s the system as a whole. After Vietnam, Watergate, Iraq and Afghanistan, among other debacles that have plagued various administrations over recent decades, many of us have a healthy skepticism of some of the actions our government has taken on our behalf without our full knowledge and consent.
Members of Congress, including those serving on the committees that are being “informed” of these programs (some, apparently, without their knowledge), have obviously not been doing an adequate job of explaining them to their constituents, or this situation would not have have caused such a furor starting with the revelations in the press last week. .Several members of Congress have called for more full disclosure of these policies to the American people. Congress owes it to us to re-examine the PATRIOT Act and other legislation passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and in the conduct of the elusive War on Terror. We must ensure that our Constitutional Rights are not being unduly infringed upon in the name of an illusory sense of security that can never be fully achieved.
To do this introspection does not require assigning evil intent upon either the Bush or Obama Administrations, or either major political party, both of which participated fully in the writing of the laws and executing the policies. Congress must act to prevent future potential abuses of power we neither need nor desire as a free people. Avoiding the slippery slope into a police state some have warned about in order to be safer from terrorist attack than we already are is a goal I share with Feingold, Sanders, Udall and others. Waiting till the 2015 deadline to re-evaluate the PATRIOT Act is neither necessary nor prudent.
Suggested Further Readings: