News Stories

Should We End the Patriot Act?

Congress just passed the extension of the Patriot Act with hardly a murmur and it was signed into law on May 27. Now Senator Ron Wyden (D Oregon) says that what the public has been led to believe the act allows and how the government secretly interprets it are two different things. The reason is that the government's interpretations of the act are classified, so there is no way to know how it is being used--or abused--by the FBI, the CIA and other enforcement and investigative agencies.

It appears that the government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act to mean that it can gather massive amounts of information on essentially everybody without any need for warrants approved by a judge or any judicial oversight whatsoever. In other words, the government has secretly decided that the Patriot Act sets aside the Fourth Amendment, which states, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

The government's position must be that gigantic dragnets that collect information about millions of people who have no criminal records and are not in any way implicated in any crime do not amount to "unreasonable searches." However, the Attorney General's rationale cannot be known because it's classified. Senator Wyden and his colleague Senator Mark Udall (D Colo.) have introduced an amendment to the act that would compel the Attorney General to "publicly disclose the United States Government’s official interpretation of the USA Patriot Act."

In congressional testimony in March, Justice Department Assistant Attorney General testified that the Attorney General's Office interpreted the act to mean that the government could collect "driver's license records, hotel records, car-rental records, apartment-leasing records, credit card records, and the like" without restriction, on essentially anybody. In addition, cell phone data indicating the location of any and all Americans can be collected indiscriminately. In a floor speech in the Senate, Senator Udall urged that the Patriot Act be amended so that data collection is limited to terrorism investigations.

In the May 29 edition of the New York Times, Colin Moynihan and Scott Shane write about what these unlimited governmental investigative powers can lead to. Austin, Texas political activist Scott Crow suspected for years that he was being watched by the FBI, but when he recently obtained his Freedom of Information Act documents, he was surprised by how extensive the surveillance was: They traced the license plates of cars parked in front of his house, recorded the comings and goings of residents and guests, and tracked his emails, phone calls and bank accounts, and looked through his trash. He discovered that some of the people he thought of as friends and colleagues were actually spies.

Putting a video camera on the phone pole across from his house caused the FBI to speculate about the mysterious cryptography on a suspicious flat object spread out across his driveway, which turned out to be a quilt for an after-school program. The FBI report says, "It had a large number of multi-colored blocks, with figures and/or lettering, and “may be a sign that is to be used in an upcoming protest."

Moynihan and Shane quote Crow as saying, "I've had times of intense paranoia, but first, it makes me laugh. It's just a big farce that the government's created such paper tigers. Al-Qaeda and real terrorists are hard to find. We're easy to find. It's outrageous that they would spend so much money surveilling civil activists, and anarchists in particular, and equating our actions with Al-Qaeda. I still occasionally see people sitting in cars across the street. I don't think they’ve given up."

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