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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Happy birthday, Patriot Act - and the gutting of civil liberties

It's been a decade since the USA Patriot Act was rushed into law amid the fear and convulsions that followed the 9/11 terror attacks, and I had hoped that by now the passions would have cooled, sanity would have been regained, and the damned thing would have been allowed to die, or at least been gutted.

Instead, Congress earlier this year gave it new life.

The Washington Post has an op-ed that partially pulls the curtain back on some of the abuses of the provisions of the act, which have turned Americans, often against their will, into gagged co-conspirators in highly objectionable fishing expeditions into the private lives of fellow citizens.

One of the most egregious tools is the use of National Security Letters, whose use was expanded under the Patriot Act. These letters allow the FBI to give themselves permission, without judicial oversight, to dig into the private records and lives of people they determine to be of interest on grounds of national security.

In May 2009, the Department of Justice reported to Congress (the most recent report I could find) that "In 2008, the FBI made 24,744 NSL requests (excluding requests for subscriber information only) for information concerning United States persons. These sought information pertaining to 7,225 different United States persons."

Dissect that number. That's almost 68 letters a day, every day of the year, authorizing itself to look at information it otherwise had no right to see. An earlier report said the government had issued 143,074 NSLs from 2003 to 2005 (inclusive). That is domestic spying by the government on an unfathomable scale. In the 11 years prior to the passage of the Patriot Act, the FBI issued a total of 8,500 NSLs.

As I wrote in my recent book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, these are the acts of a government convulsing in fear. It was fear of fascism and communism that led to the 1940 Smith Act that, for a time, outlawed a specific political belief here in the land of political freedoms. There are direct parallels to the Patriot Act in that each was adopted in response to external pressures, and each had the unintended consequence of trampling some of the rights we believe sets us apart as a nation:

The use of the Smith Act against Communist Party leaders was an effective attempt by the U.S. government to criminalize political belief, flouting both the U.S. Constitution and a national tradition of political freedom and openness. The Smith Act was spawned by rising fear of fascism, and in some ways it is the sire of the USA Patriot Act. Both grew out of legitimate concerns, but the effects of the laws undercut the very thing they were supposed to protect: the American way of life. As the rallying cry went in the days after the 9/11 terror attacks, “The terrorists hate us for our freedoms.” But the USA Patriot Act trumped many of those freedoms, giving the government the authority to, among other things, conduct warrantless searches, track personal reading habits, and muzzle those forced to cooperate with the secret investigations. Thus in the name of anti-terrorism authorities can enter private homes without the resident’s knowledge, or demand details of the books that have been bought at stores or checked out from the library, all under a blanket of secrecy and, in many cases, without judicial review. In its name, and in search of radicalism, police have infiltrated peace groups and religious organizations. These are not the conditions of a free society. These are the acts of a police state, and they stand the nation’s basic principles of freedom of belief and political association—not to mention the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—on their head.

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