The Patriot Act and the Quiet Death of the US Bill of Rights
by Zack Kaldveer, Consumer Federation of California, California Progress Report
With the stroke of an autopen from the other side of the
Atlantic Ocean, the once articulate critic of the Patriot Act signed a four
year extension of the most dangerous assault on American civil liberties in US
history without a single additional privacy protection.
One would think that this reauthorization would have incited
vigorous debate in the halls of Congress and at least a fraction of the
breathless 24/7 media coverage allotted the Anthony Weiner ‘sexting’ scandal.
Instead, three weeks ago the House (250 to 153) and Senate (72 to 23) approved, and the President signed, an extension
of this landmark attack on the Bill of Rights with little notice and even less
Most disturbing was the extension ‘ without modification ‘
of the Act’s three most controversial provisions:
‘ allows broad warrants to be issued by a
secretive court for any type of record, from financial to medical, without the
government having to declare that the information sought is connected to a
terrorism or espionage investigation;
‘ allows the FBI to obtain wiretaps from the secret court
(i.e. ‘roving wiretaps’,) known as the FISA court, without identifying the
target or what method of communication is to be tapped;
‘ allows the FISA court warrants for the electronic
monitoring of a person (‘lone wolf’ measure ) for whatever reason ‘ even
without showing that the suspect is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist.
Also in need of reform, are what’s called National Security
Letters (NSLs) ‘ which allow the FBI, without a court order, to obtain
telecommunication, financial and credit records deemed ‘relevant’ to a
government investigation. The FBI issues about 50,000 a year and an internal
watchdog has repeatedly found the flagrant misuse of this power.
The Long Record of Patriot Act Abuses
Any meaningful debate over whether to reauthorize any and
all of these provisions without significant additional privacy protections
should include a few key questions. One, have these provisions made us
significantly safer (i.e. are there documented incidences they have led to
capturing terrorists plotting against us?)? Two, is there any evidence that
they have been abused? Three, is their claimed usefulness somehow jeopardized
by the kinds of modest reforms privacy rights groups (and others) advocate? And
finally, have we created a dangerous constitutional precedent?
Thanks to the relentless work by groups like the American
Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – and information uncovered by the Freedom of
Information Act – there is little to no evidence that these provisions, as
written, have made us any safer. Yet there’s a long list of incidences of
unadulterated government abuse and malpractice for a host of purposes other
than fighting terrorism. In other words, the threat this Act, and these
particular provisions pose to the basic Constitutional rights of American
citizens is not hypothetical, but documented fact.