This coming Sunday, the Senate will meet to have one final discussion regarding the status of the so-called PATIOT Act (so-called, because nothing is patriotic about it). As rare as a Sunday session is, the act is set to expire at midnight Monday, meaning that the Senators will only have a few hours at most to hash out a plan to reauthorize the act as-is; extend the act for some period of time; approve the House’s USA FREEDOM Act; or simply allow the act to die. If the Senate has any true patriotism left, then they will allow the act to completely fizzle out and become a relic of days gone by.
The PATRIOT Act was hastily passed by Congress, and signed by President Bush, in the early stages of our nation’s post-9/11 recovery. During a time when emotions were raw, and people were scared, the PATRIOT Act was promoted as a set of anti-terrorism tools, necessary to the safety and security of our homeland. In those early months following 9/11, who would have argued against the act? At the time, it may have seemed like a reasonable balance of trading some civil liberties in favor of greater security. Now, nearly 14 years later, the act’s true benefits are well known, and the results are quite horrific: instead of being used to combat terrorism, the tools contained within the PATRIOT Act are used to maintain tabs on ordinary Americans, and are overzealously used by law enforcement to combat domestic crimes.
Currently, the most visible trampling of our civil liberties comes in the form of metadata-information related to who you call, and when you call that person. This information is compiled by phone companies and provided, en masse, to the National Security Agency. [mc_name name=’Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’M000355′ ] has been arguing recently that this breach of our 4th amendment rights is lawful and necessary. To some people, this may not seem like such a big deal as the information is compiled in a nondescript location in Maryland, and analyzed by intelligence officers. So, for a moment, let’s be more abrupt about this intrusion and cast its operation in a different light:
Imagine yourself walking down a sidewalk, and a FBI agent stops you and orders you to give him your cell phone, so that he can copy down your phone’s call log. How would you feel about that? Just as importantly, how do you think such a stop would play out in court? Think a warrant was necessary for that stop and seizure? You betcha!
So why is the intrusion allowed within the PATRIOT Act any different than the intrusion played out on the sidewalk? To begin, the interpretation of the 4th amendment was made in secret, by a secret court. Therefore, we don’t actually know how that court decided on the legality of the metadata search. Second, I believe that more people are accepting of the PATRIOT Act’s violation because it isn’t being played out on neighborhood sidewalks; it’s being collected in some backroom, away from the public’s viewing and, therefore, is less abrupt and more clandestine. Certainly, if cell phone footage started surfacing of federal agents stopping random, innocent people on the streets and demanding their cell phone, the practice would cause an immediate uproar and would cease almost immediately.
While the collection of metadata information is the most visible intrusion, the PATRIOT Act allows for other disturbing civil liberty violations that are not addressed in the House’s USA FREEDOM Act and would, therefore, be allowed to continue if so passed. For example, the use of “sneak and peek” warrants authorizes federal agents to enter a home or office and secretly record, collect, and view whatever the warrant authorizes, all without the owner’s knowledge. While being a clear violation of the 4th Amendment, and flying in the face of centuries of Supreme Court precedent, it was argued at the time that this was necessary to ensure that vital intelligence related to anti-terrorism efforts went unnoticed to the suspect. That’s all good and great except for one key fact: since the act’s passage, 11,000 “sneak and peek” warrants were issued, and only 51 were related to terrorism. The rest were all related to domestic crimes such as drug dealing, fraud, and racketeering. This only begs the question: if continuing the act is vital to protecting the homeland from terrorists, then why was the act’s authorization of unconstitutional searches only used 0.4% of the time to combat terrorism? A more important question is, are we willing to trade a vital constitutional protection for such a small benefit? Certainly, more concerned Americans will not think so.
As is often the case, a politician only looks as far as the horizon, with the “horizon” being Election Day. It is understandable that politicians who support the continuing use of the PATRIOT Act, or the passage of the USA FREEDOM Act, don’t want to allow a terrorism-related incident to occur on their watch, if such an event can be prevented by a tool made available in either act. But both acts are overreaching, and have been demonstrated to be beneficial only a tiny fraction of the time. More alarming, both acts will continue to allow law enforcement to sidestep crucial constitutional protections, not to combat terrorism, but to combat low level crimes never intended for use in either act. If [mc_name name=’Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’M000355′ ] has any patriotism left, he will realize how absurd and hypocritical the acts genuinely are, and will allow them to both to die the death that they deserve.