By John W. Whitehead
May 16, 2011
“It is the responsibility of the patriot to protect his country from its government.”—Thomas Paine
Those who founded this country knew quite well that every citizen must remain vigilant or freedom would be lost. This is the true nature of a patriot—one who sounds the clarion call when the Constitution is under attack. If, on the other hand, the people become sheep-like, it will lead to a government of wolves. This is what we are faced with today as Congress marches in lockstep with the White House to renew the USA Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act drove a stake through the heart of the Bill of Rights, violating at least six of the ten original amendments—the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments—and possibly the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well. The Patriot Act also redefined terrorism so broadly that many non-terrorist political activities such as protest marches, demonstrations and civil disobedience were considered potential terrorist acts, thereby rendering anyone desiring to engage in protected First Amendment expressive activities as suspects of the surveillance state.
The Patriot Act justified broader domestic surveillance, the logic being that if government agents knew more about each American, they could distinguish the terrorists from law-abiding citizens—no doubt an earnest impulse shared by small-town police and federal agents alike.
Suddenly, for the first time in American history, federal agents and police officers were authorized to conduct black bag “sneak-and-peak” searches of homes and offices and confiscate your personal property without first notifying you of their intent or their presence. The law also granted the FBI the right to come to your place of employment, demand your personal records and question your supervisors and fellow employees, all without notifying you; allowed the government access to your medical records, school records and practically every personal record about you; and allowed the government to secretly demand to see records of books or magazines you’ve checked out in any public library and Internet sites you’ve visited (at least 545 libraries received such demands in the first year following passage of the Patriot Act).
In the name of fighting terrorism, government officials were permitted to monitor religious and political institutions with no suspicion of criminal wrongdoing; prosecute librarians or keepers of any other records if they told anyone that the government had subpoenaed information related to a terror investigation; monitor conversations between attorneys and clients; search and seize Americans’ papers and effects without showing probable cause; and jail Americans indefinitely without a trial, among other things. The federal government also made liberal use of its new powers, especially through the use (and abuse) of the nefarious national security letters, which allow the FBI to demand personal customer records from Internet Service Providers, financial institutions and credit companies at the mere say-so of the government agent in charge of a local FBI office and without prior court approval.
Despite the fact that more than 400 local, county and state resolutions were passed in opposition to the Patriot Act, Congress, at the urging of the Bush Administration, renewed several of the Patriot Act’s more controversial provisions, which were set to expire, or sunset, on December 31, 2005. The Patriot Reauthorization Act (PAREA) took government intrusion into the lives of average Americans to a whole new level. For example, one “administrative authority” provision within PAREA, which allows the FBI to write and approve its own search orders, represents a direct assault on the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure
Campaign promises to the contrary, Barack Obama has proven to be little better than George Bush in terms of civil liberties. For example, on February 27, 2010, just a little over a year after taking office, Obama quietly signed into law three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act that were set to expire. Then, one year later, in February 2011, Congress approved a 90-day extension of those very same provisions, which Obama once again signed into law. Now, rather than expiring quietly, those provisions are once again up for reauthorization on May 28, thanks to the handiwork of Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, with backing from Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairmen of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, respectively.
Unfortunately, not only are Sensenbrenner and his cohorts pushing to extend the first two controversial provisions (allowing “roving wiretaps” of phones used by terror suspects and allowing federal investigators to compel production of business records) for six more years, they have also proposed making permanent the “lone wolf” provision, allowing the government to monitor individuals who they believe are terrorists even though they might not have ties to a specific group.
With or without the help of the Patriot Act, the American government, never a staunch advocate of civil liberties, has been writing its own orders for some time now. Yet what the Patriot Act and its subsequent incarnations did was legitimize what had previously been covert and frowned upon as a violation of Americans’ long-cherished privacy rights. Thus, what began with the passage of the USA Patriot Act in the fall of 2001 has snowballed into a massive assault on our constitutional freedoms, our system of government and our fundamental philosophies and way of life.
Most Americans have been lulled into thinking that the pressing issues are voting in the next election or repealing health care. But the real issue is simply this—the freedoms in the Bill of Rights are being eviscerated, and if they are not restored and soon, freedom as we have known it in America will be lost. Thus, whether it’s a short-term or long-term scenario, Congress should not renew the USA Patriot Act, nor should President Obama sign it into law. If he does so, he might just be hammering the final nail in our coffin.