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Wednesday, October 05, 2005


PATRIOT Act Anyone?

I don't know if you pay attention to the Independent Newspaper at all, which I usually don't, but the front cover from last week (Sept. 29-Oct. 5) pulled me in rather quickly. The article titled "Doing what Sam says: In an era of terror, are we losing our land of liberty?" was particularly interesting to me (as it should be to everyone) especially in context of the Constitution class.

The Patriot Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001) was passed into law only 45 days after Sept. 11, 2001, without any real resistance. It basically gives the government the ability to collect information on American citizens without their knowledge or consent. You can be the target of a search (sneak-and-peek searches of your house when you are not there) or intelligence gathering (like taking samples of your DNA and monitoring your private phone calls, e-mails, and business transactions) if the FBI has a "significant purpose" to believe you are a terrorist. The article notes that the FBI has actually called peace activists "domestic terrorists." Does this mean that if you are a peace activist participating in our democratic system that fosters dissent that you are subject to having your privacy invaded by the US government?

If our democracy is based on free speech and the RIGHT to disagree with the government, then what the Patriot Act is essentially saying is that if you exercise this right you might be labeled a terrorist. And once there is a "significant purpose" established by the FBI, your constitutional rights can be suspended. What I want to know is a PRECISE DEFINITION of "significant purpose" because the two words can really mean anything. Could this be a harbinger of the collapse of our democratic way of life, moving toward a system of fascism?

I am very interested in learning more about the Patriot Act since it seems to give government the power to violate our right to privacy, free speech, and fair trial (shown in the article, as Mayfield was thrown in jail and denied the right "to see and contest the evidence against him, even though he could have faced the death penalty.").

What do you think about discussing the Patriot Act in class?

Hi Dennis,

I have not spent any time looking specifically at the Patriot Act or at the public "debate" with respect to the Patriot Act.

My intuition is that the public "debate" is unlikely to be very accurate. One illustration: A few years ago now, there was a concern, probably in the fall, about an oil supply interruption in the short term. The public discussion involved how terrible the price increases were going to be, especially moving into the fall heating season (such public concern starts to seem almost seasonal). Many politicians started called for releases for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to ease the economic impact of the short term "shortages." Many politicians responded that this was not an appropriate use of the Petroleum Reserve (the Strategic part of course suggesting a national security sort of concern).

President Clinton announced after a few days of the public "display" of concern that he was going to release barrels of oil from the reserve. But he was promising to be very responsible and replace the oil within some period of time -- I think it was 45 or 60 days. The press and the expected politicians lauded this move by the President, and much ado was made of his promise to return all of the oil in short order.

I've learned not to trust the press if the issue is one that I want to have some knowledge of. What did I do? I went to findlaw.com and looked up the statute creating the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Guess what I discovered?

The statute actually authorized the President to remove oil for the precise purpose at hand. So, the one group of politicians was wrong. And, the statute also said that the oil must be returned within exactly the time frame the President said. The President's press release touted his unusual promise to return the oil in short order, and the press followed suit and said what a beautiful thing it was too. When the facts were that the President was required by law to do precisely what he asserted he thought up all by himself.

The moral of this story? If you want to know about the Patriot Act, my intuition is you don't want to spend much time on news accounts, or on articles such as those you noted. But there is a pretty cheap way to get the law itself, i.e., go to findlaw.com. Then read the statute and decide for yourself what the concerns are with respect to our liberty.

Now, I have heard that much of what is found in the Patriot Act is nothing more than giving police and FBI, etc., power they have had and used in the "drug war" for quite a number of years now. I cannot confirm that through my own study of the statutes involved. I do suspect there is a good bit of truth in that assertion. Yet, even so, I do think there are several areas of practice with respect to the "drug war" that have been upheld by the Court but that I think seriously harm individual liberty. So, while some of the powers in the Patriot Act may not be truly new, some may be of concern just as I think they should be with respect to the "drug war." One final note about my intuiion on this issue. There are apparently some areas of the Patriot Act that both sides of the political isle now want to go back and change. Such areas would probably concern you and I as well, and I suppose the good news is that politicians in sufficient numbers have said those things will be changed.
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