The USA PATRIOT Act sacrifices our civil liberties in several major ways. Nancy Chang, the senior litigation attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, writes in her article, “What’s So Patriotic About Trampling on the Bill of Rights?”:
First, the Act places our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and political association in jeopardy by creating a broad new crime of “domestic terrorism,” and by denying entry to non-citizens on the basis of ideology. Second, the Act will reduce our already lowered expectations of privacy under the Fourth Amendment by granting the government enhanced surveillance powers. (Chang 2).
The USA PATRIOT Act broadly defines “domestic terrorism” as “acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws [and that] appear to be intended…to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” (H.R. 3162 Section 802). This vague definition includes terrorists, but it also includes political dissenters, “environmental activists, anti-globalization activists, and anti-abortion activists” (Chang 2) who non-violently vocalize their issue with the US government. As Chang comments, this Section of the USA PATRIOT Act ultimately criminalizes legal political dissent and assembly.
Similarly, our right to privacy, detailed in the Fourth Amendment which prohibits search and seizures without probable cause, is tread heavily upon. The USA PATRIOT Act promises hugely unchecked surveillance powers such as “sneak and peek” searches without judicial warrants; investigators are given “authority for delaying notice of the execution of a warrant” (H.R. 3162 Section 213). In other words, the government can enter your home without probable cause or a warrant, perhaps based on your ethnicity or a letter you wrote to a newspaper that expressed political dissent; search your home; and leave without notifying you that this illegal search took place until afterwards. Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act grants the government complete access to records in international investigations without a court order, though this is in direct opposition to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. In the final blow to our privacy, the government will have complete freedom to use its internet tracking program, Carnivore, to listen in on phone calls and follow internet activity when such information is deemed “relevant” (H.R. 3162 Sect. 216) to an investigation. Thus the government can read your e-mails, visit the web pages you frequent, tap and trace your phone calls, and listen in on your phone conversations as they please.
The bottom line is that the USA PATRIOT Act broadens the scope of “domestic terrorism” to the degree that the term is meaningless, then compromises our First and Fourth Amendment rights in its hunt for offenders. The USA PATRIOT Act is far-reaching and wide-sweeping, casting a dragnet that could easily pinpoint innocent people as terrorists. If you work with a suspect, for instance, or if you use a public computer terminal that a suspect has used previously, you may be investigated. If you are an American citizen from a Middle Eastern country, you may be investigated. If you have relatives or friends from Middle Eastern countries visiting you on legal visas, you may be investigated. If you protest the United States’ military campaign in the Middle East, you may be investigated. If you have worked with or donated money to an international organization that the American government deems suspicious, you may be investigated. You are being targeted not for alleged activity, not for actual terrorist violence, but for your ideologies. The government may investigate you without your knowledge: they may enter your home, search your computer, listen in on your phone conversations, and then detain you without charge legally. Before the USA PATRIOT Act was signed, you were protected from these actions by judicial review and by the Fourth Amendment. Now you have no protection. Another act passed quietly by Congress and signed by President Bush on November 13, 2001, allows for secret military tribunals – meaning may be deprived of your right to a fair, public trial. Barbara Olshansky argues in her article “American Justice on Trial: Who Loses in the Case of Military Tribunals”:
With a single swipe of his pen, President Bush replaced the democratic pillars of our legal system with that of a military commission system in which he, or his designee, is rule-maker, investigator, accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, sentencing court, reviewing court, and jailer or executioner. This system is a radical departure from the key constitutional guarantees that we view as the heart of American democracy: the rights to a presumption of innocence, an independent judiciary, trial by jury, unanimous verdicts, public proceedings, due process, and appeals to higher courts. All of these safeguards against injustice are gone (Olshansky 1).
The government may be successful in finding terrorists and preventing future terrorist activities. But they are doing so at the expense of our civil liberties, and there is no justification as to why our civil liberties must be suspended in order to achieve these goals. Indeed, Attorney General Ashcroft made clear his view on sacrificing our civil liberties when he said that, “those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty. . . only aid terrorists” (Tomorrow 1), which renders anyone who questions Ashcroft, Bush, or the USA PATRIOT Act a criminal. We are criminals for embracing the most important Constitutional rights upon which this nation is founded: freedom to think, speak, and act as individuals possessing unalienable personal liberties exempt from government consideration or interference. Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff warns us all: “you are not immune” (Hentoff 3). It bears repeating: we are not immune.