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Renewing the Patriot Act

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Michael Collins

Renewing the Patriot Act: What is the Patriot Act?  The government claimed that it was a vital law necessary to protect us against future terrorist acts.

Who would oppose that?  Shortly after 9/11 the act became law.  There was public shock at the devastation caused by the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  Surely, the government would make good use of the legislation.  Failing to do so would violate the public trust since the act eliminated major constitutional protections of privacy, the right to a fair trial, and other civil liberties.

Before the act, you had an unqualified right to a "fair and speedy trial:"

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense."   Sixth Amendment, United States Constitution

When citizens are prosecuted under the Patriot Act, the Department of Justice doesn't have to detail charges and evidence defined as "classified information" concerning "national security."  Prosecutors do not have to reveal evidence to defense attorneys unless those attorneys have the required security clearance.  Defendants have no access to the charges against them.  Judges have to stipulate their accuracy and juries must take the government's word that the charges are accurate.  (US Department of Justice Criminal Resource Manual).

So much for your right to be "informed of the nature and cause of the accusation" and a "fair trial."   All the government needs to convict you up is say, it's a matter of national security, trust us.

The act also allows the government to secretly break and enter into your home or tap your electronic communication without notice.  This was necessary for "national security," proponents argued.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution 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." Fourth Amendment

Did this erosion of constitutional rights help in the fight against terrorism?

The chart below is a fiscal year 2008 report to the US Senate leadership listing sneak and peak warrants and warrant extensions, a key feature of the act.  These warrants allow law enforcement officials to search a home, personal records, and monitor electronic communication without any notice to the subject of the search or monitoring.

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Of 1291 total requests for warrants or extensions in fiscal year 2008, only five concerned terrorism.  The majority, including wiretaps, focused on drug dealers.  The remainder focused on other criminal activity.

The Patriot Act is a bipartisan effort.  Joe Biden takes credit for his Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995. serving as the model for then Attorney General John Ashcroft's  original version of the act in 2001.

This is just a small part of the act up for renewal early this week.  Our constitutional rights end with a whimper, not a bang.

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