Laws made in a hurry rarely do well, especially if they are passed as a reaction to something that was as tragic as Sept. 11. Such was the birth of the Patriot Act. It had, and has, provisions that should make any American worried about the long reach of government.
I want the bad guys to be caught as much as anyone. I knew two people who died on Sept. 11. One person I knew died at the World Trade Center towers, and one died on the plane that went into the Pentagon. It was a terrifying time for all of us, and I developed a stomach ulcer shortly after that terrible date. However, catching the bad guys does not mean that we have to give up our privacy as a nation. The renewal of the Patriot Act is bad law.
This week, Congress renewed the law until June 2015. Sen. Rand Paul waged a fight to try and stop it so that the government would not have a wide swath to monitor individual actions. He was not alone in the vote, as the Senate passed the bill 72-23 and the House passed it 250-153.
It was not just the terrible provisions of the act that raised the ire of the lawmakers voting against it, but it was the way that the bill has been interpreted. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said, “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”
His amendment went down, but he reached a compromise with Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein. She said that her committee would turn their attention to how the Patriot Act is interpreted.
There are other issues in this Patriot Act continuation that should give every American pause. Libraries will still have to comply with Section 215, and there have been many librarians who have fought this provision. It is still there, allowing the government to access charge records. There are other records that can be obtained as well, such as hotel records, rental car records, leasing agreements on homes or other property, etc.
What Sen. Wyden worries about is how the interpretation allows for records to be obtained in a broad fishing expedition. Other senators are concerned that this will allow Americans’ records to be obtained when they have no connection to terrorism and that peaceful protest groups will have their records obtained. This is not pie-in-the-sky, as during the peaceful anti-war movements in the 1970s, our government spied on its own citizens. In what was also a laughable attempt to spy on American citizens, the early gay movement in the 1970s was also spied on. Just yesterday, the New York Times ran an article about a man from Texas who, because he believes in local government over state, has been followed, cars parked outside of his house, his trash inspected and has more than 400 pages of FBI records.
According to Sen. Paul, there have been more than 2 million searches of bank records. The math of that is scary. With around 200 million adults who are mobile and active, that would mean one out of every 100 adults have had their bank records searched. According to the government, that would mean that somehow 2 million of us may have suspicious behavior bordering on terrorism!
Wire-tapping should also be a concern of Americans who want to limit what the government can do. Sen. Wyden wants to limit the authority to track people with roving wiretaps without a warrant signed by a judge or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. However, these limited-government Republicans decided that looking tough on terrorism is more important than limiting the role of government.
Without giving out the people’s names, it would be instructive to the American people to have the real statistics. How many library records searches have they requested? How many of those have been authorized by a federal judge? How many cell phones have been tracked, and how many of those were authorized?
The founding of this country included the right to individual freedom and privacy. Two million bank records in the hands of the government flies in the face of what we were taught to believe as our fundamental rights. It is time that the intelligence committees of both the House and Senate looked at this and that the FBI and other agencies published statistics for all of America to see. Then we can really understand what the Patriot Act is really about.