Before I go further (or, in fact, anywhere at all), we cordially offer an invitation: Join us as the House of Representatives takes its historic vote on Tuesday evening.
And to get up to speed on just how important this all is, check out our own (we proudly claim him as such) Chip Pitts’ interview on C-SPAN. Spoiler: all but one of the calls in the Q&A portion were from people—R, D, and I—opposed to or concerned about the ramifications of the Patriot Act. Now, if we can convince Congress. . . .
When the United States Constitution was presented to the states in 1789, many found that it did not go far enough in protecting the rights of individuals; a number, New York prominent among them, refused to ratify it without these retained rights spelled out. Although the underlying principle was that people possess all rights except those that they voluntarily surrender to their duly elected government, the AntiFederalists were afraid of a creating a strong centralized government without explicit restraints on its power. Hence the Bill of Rights—the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which collectively limit the power of the government and spell out those rights most important to the citizens of the day, including (but not limited to) the right of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers. For more than two centuries we have held those rights close, considering them imperative in a free democratic republic.
Fast forward 220 years, and those rights are still crucial to such a society. In an age with many more means of communication than the 18th-century systems of face-to-face and via printed word, and with more possible intrusion into individual action than our founders could have imagined—radio, telephone, television, photography, video, Internet, WiFi, Facebook, Twitter—how is it possible to safeguard those rights? How can we ensure that our government obeys its own laws and, while empowered to responsibly chase criminals and true terrorists, is not allowed to interfere needlessly with the rights of law-abiding persons?
I submit that the worst possible way of moving forward at this time would be to extend the sunset date of the Patriot Act, or any of its provisions. Written after one of only two attacks by foreign citizens within our nation’s borders (the other being Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, “a day that will live in infamy”), the Patriot Act was passed in immediate response to a stunning event, at a time when nobody was sure whether the plane attacks were the extent of the terrorists’ plan, or whether more incidents were in the works.
It could be argued that the Patriot Act was not a bad idea in late 2001. However, it is not clear that, even had it been already in place, the human errors that allowed the “9/11” attacks to occur would have been prevented. More important, we have learned that, in the past 10 years, the Patriot Act has been sorely abused by government agencies. The Department of Justice reports that the FBI has misused its Patriot-Act powers to commit some 40,000 illegal acts; after auditing only 10% of national security violations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found as many as 3000 illegal uses of national security letters (NSLs), including accessing password-protected documents without a warrant, submitting false or inaccurate declarations to courts, and using improper evidence to obtain federal grand-jury subpoenas (Downsizer Dispatch E-mail of 4 Feb. 2011, quoting a report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), titled Patterns of Misconduct: FBI Intelligence Violations from 2001 – 2008).
Where are we now? Three provisions of the Patriot Act are scheduled to expire at the end of this month. They are
• Lone wolf: Allows the government to track a target without any discernible affiliation to a foreign power, such as an international terrorist group.
The problem here is that no reason need be given to track a target; it is easy to see how this could be misused for purposes other than seeking evidence of a criminal plot.
• Business records: Allows investigators to compel third parties, including financial services and travel and telephone companies, to provide them access to a suspect’s records without the suspect’s knowledge.
This violates the right to privacy that citizens expect.
• Roving wiretaps: Allows the government to monitor phone lines or Internet accounts that a terrorism suspect may be using, whether or not others who are not suspects also regularly use them.
Any innocent person using an account shared by someone who is a terrorism suspect, with or without knowledge of possible terrorist intentions, is subject to eavesdropping with out any reason.
Tomorrow, Tuesday, 7 Feb., there is a House of Representatives vote scheduled on H.R. 514, a bill which would extend the Patriot Act as is, including the above provisions. This leaves a bad situation no better. As such, this bill should be defeated.
Later this month, the subject moves to the Senate, where the best of an admittedly bad lot is Sen. Leahy’s S. 193, the only bill to offer reforms to the Patriot Act as it currently reads. Although there is much to be desired from this bill, we propose that it be supported. Will this close the subject? Certainly not; we seem to be moving gradually away from concerns of civil liberties and individual rights in favor of “security at all costs”. We at Get FISA Right are very concerned with this trend, and pledge to work to keep communication open, government transparent, and individual privacy as intact as possible in this very connected technological age.
We urge you to add your voice to the POPVOX discussion.
See you tomorrow!