Cato Institute event Writeup

By: Harry Waisbren

Our tweetchat during the Cato Institute event, The USA Patriot Act: Renew, Revise, Repeal?, was quite instructive as to both the need to fix the Patriot Act and the degree to which more attention (especially from media) is warranted in regards to this issue in particular and civil liberties in general.

The event constituted a lively debate including views from across the political spectrum, and we encourage everyone to read through the full transcripts of coverage from the tweetchat in the Patriot Act Action Hub as well as Mark Dorlester’s coverage in a parallel chat. Below you will also find some highlights of key points from the participants:

  • The event started strong, with Moderator Tim Lynch of the Cato institute describing bluntly that  the debate in congress hasn’t been a front page news story because “Obama signaled that he wanted all provisions renewed”. It is a sad state of affairs for our media environment, regardless of what one thinks about the ‘liberal media bias narrative’, that this has come to pass, as there are very few issues in which a bipartisan consensus has been achieved amongst our citizenry as civil liberties.
  • Lynch also specified that it “seems clear that the patriot act will be renewed in some form in the near future. If not, by the end of the year, some kind of extension, early next year”.
  • Julian Sanchez, also of the Cato Institute, worked throughout the debate to “take a step back and put the disparate powers in the context of a larger shift in the contours of American surveillance law.” His argument that we are no longer surveilling “people”, but “populations” is particularly jarring and powerful language.
  • Gregory Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology powerfully argued that “at the end of the day, every Patriot Act power is wielded by mere humans, with human frailties, who make mistakes.” This is what our founding fathers understood, and why centralized power without checks is so abhorrent to the nature of our country. Such an argument is why Mark cited the “central issue: NSLs create a government of men, not laws. Any investigator can target you no matter how he/she thinks you’re connected to terrorism.”
  • Jena Baker McNeil of the Heritage foundation continually cited 9/11 as a continuing justification for the civil liberties infringing aspects of the Patriot Act, and emphasized that “terrorists often manipulate our own liberties against us.” I don’t believe she realizes, however, that the terrorists win in a way much more profound than a building’s collapse if we relinquish our own liberties out of cowardice…
  • Richard Samp of Washington Legal Foundation argued from a limited government standpoint that “simply because there is the potential of abuse, doesn’t mean we have to add additional layers of bureacracy” while somehow forgetting the layers of public servants necessary to maintain a surveillance society.

Much thanks to Jim Burrows for his fantastic work summarizing the notes in the tweetchat into tweets, to Korkie for retweeting vociferously, to Amy for her extensive outreach, to Mark for his coverage, and to Jon and everyone else who participated or paid attention.

These tweetchats are not an end in and of themselves, just as the Cato Institute event isn’t either. The key is to change people’s minds and encourage others to become active, all within a focused effort to move congressional legislation while pushing the president to engage.

We will continue to hold these events to amplify these arguments while keeping our eye on the larger prize. As Julian argues, we need to take that step back and look at the longer term implications of this massive shift, and adjust our strategies while digging our heels in for the fight ahead accordingly. Our tweetchat during this Cato event really is illustrative of this larger context, as we all must do whatever we can to get the word out as to what is happening—as well as to our leaders to alert them that we are paying attention and intend to hold them accountable to their oaths to uphold the constitution.


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