This week I’d like to talk about the PATRIOT act. It’s been in the news lately because certain provisions are set to expire this week. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), has been in stark opposition of the PATRIOT act since he was elected to office. The PATRIOT act has been surrounded by controversy ever since the bill was passed by congress in 2001. Like many horrible bills, this one was passed quickly, without being read by the people voting for it. It was given a ten word title that created the acronym USA PATRIOT. As we all know, when a bill has a nice sounding name it must be really good. Right? At any rate, why should we care about the PATRIOT act? If it makes us safer isn’t it worth it?
How about we start by figuring out what the PATRIOT act is for. Passed shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the PATRIOT act was not a completely new concept. Instead it brought together and strengthened several other laws that were already being used at the time, most notably the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). The goal of the new law was to make it easier to discover and stop terrorist plots that would otherwise be carried out in American cities. If you were a grown up during the 9/11 attacks you heard the phrase, “connect the dots” a lot. This is because previous to the PATRIOT act it was very difficult for different law enforcement agencies to communicate with each other and it was thought that 9/11 may have been prevented if that was not the case. The law was sold to the American people as a way to allow the different agencies to connect the dots and make it easier to collect information from non-American terrorists from outside the US communicating to terror cells within the country. I was a supporter of the law in 2001, believing that we would only be able to conduct warrantless wire taps on terrorists in foreign countries, and that federal law enforcement was just being given the power that local law enforcement already had. In my defense, in 2001 we had just been attacked and the vast majority of both parties had voted for the bill. I, like my fellow Republicans and Democrats, blindly supported the bill. After all, how bad could it be if 98 senators voted for it?
So, what’s wrong with the PATRIOT act? Isn’t preventing terror attacks on American cities important? At this point it would be very easy to pull the low hanging fruit and invoking Ben Franklin’s quote about liberty vs. security, so I won’t. Instead, how about I just concentrate on what the government can and can’t do, or should and shouldn’t do? Let’s talk about a little thing I like to call the Bill of Rights. Contrary to apparent popular belief, the Bill of Rights does not tell us what we as citizens can do without penalty from the government. The Bill of Rights says what the government can’t do to the citizenry of the country. For instance, the first amendment does not say you have the right to free speech, it says the government cannot abridge your freedom of speech. The difference is that your freedom was there before the government existed, not the other way around. This is an important distinction. The amendment that would apply to the PATRIOT act is the 4th amendment. Here’s the text of the bill:
“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.”
You can see what I mean about this amendment not granting the people the freedom of privacy, but limiting the government’s ability to violate the rights you were born with to be secure in your own home and communications with others. The reason that is important is because if it was the other way around and constitution said “You have the right to free speech, religion and the press.” Or “You have the right to be secure in your person, house, papers and effects.” That would imply that your rights were granted to you by the government. But it doesn’t say that, and they weren’t. If they were, the government would legally be able to remove your rights as easily as they were granted, and I would not be writing this blog right now.
So what’s the connection between the PATRIOT act and the 4th amendment? This is why the PATRIOT act has been in the news for the last couple weeks. A provision called section 215, is set to expire on June 1st. This provision makes it possible for government to have access to all the phone records and emails of every citizen of the country without having to get a warrant issued for any of them. Basically, they can get one warrant, say for Verizon, and be granted access to every single customer’s phone records, or an email provider and gain access to every single customer’s email records. One warrant, millions of people’s private information. This is a blatant violation of the 4th amendment. Not only that, but when they issue the warrant it is illegal to tell anyone that a warrant has been issued and they are possibly looking at the phone records of innocent people.
Aren’t we safer because of the PATRIOT act? There have been over 50 terrorist plots thwarted since 9/11. The vast majority have been from information gathered in terror-likely countries around the world. It is impossible to say whether we would have been able to catch them without the PATRIOT act or just using intelligence gathering methods available to us before 9/11. Let’s take it for granted that the program works and terrorists have been caught directly because of the PATRIOT ACT. It should still be stopped. In this country, we have the right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty. The PATRIOT act treats everyone as guilty until proven innocent. The thinking is along the lines of, “We have to be proactive in our search of terrorists in order to keep our citizens safe.” The problem with that is that when you tell a free society that there is no privacy, and nothing can be done outside the watchful eye of the benevolent government, the free society turns into a police state to keep them safe. When a society becomes a police state, they are no longer a free society. The citizens mighty be safe from each other, but not safe. I’m getting dangerously close to that Ben Franklin quote again, I better stop.