Monday, January 10, 2005

Patriot Act

My paper yesterday printed this letter (below) that I wrote in response to an earlier letter praising the Patriot Act:

When the USA Patriot Act was passed in the confusing period following September 11, 2001, Congress wisely gave itself a chance to reconsider by setting an expiration date of 2005 for the most controversial provisions of the act. The time has now come for this unconstitutional and unnecessary act to expire.

Back in 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated that “Congress is about to pass a law that drastically expands government power to invade our privacy, to imprison people without due process, and to punish dissent.” In fact, the ACLU has continued to challenge the government’s possible abuse of the Patriot Act, contrary to Terri Tyson’s implications.

While Ms. Tyson contends that no one has been adversely affected by the Patriot Act, the truth is we’ll never know. The act allows such an unprecedented and unjustified suppression of information that there is no credible way to know how the act is being used. We don’t know if the Patriot Act is being used to search homes without the owner's knowledge (sneak and peek), to spy on emails, tap phones, monitor internet activity, reduce judicial monitoring, and deny due process – all basic rights that were protected before the Patriot Act was passed.

What we do know about the Patriot Act is that it has mainly been used in routine criminal cases, not to fight terrorism. The General Accounting Office found that three-quarters of the cases under the act had been “mis-characterised” by the Ashcroft Justice Department as terrorist connected. The unprecedented secrecy allowed by the Patriot Act means we will never know if it really is an effective anti-terrorism measure or a smokescreen.

The Patriot Act may actually put us at an increased risk of terrorism because it wastes resources. The government can launch extensive and expensive investigations pursuing a hunch (or even advancing a political agenda) with no evidence of wrong-doing. Just look at the case of Brandon Mayfield, a U.S. citizen from Portland, Oregon, whose home was subjected to numerous sneak and peak searches and who was detained without charge and threatened with being put to death when the government mistakenly connected him to the Madrid train station bombing.

There is no way Congress can objectively conclude that the Patriot Act should be extended and the potential for abuse is enormous. Therefore, it should be allowed to expire. As Benjamin Franklin said in 1759: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither.”


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