Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Should the USA Patriot Act be renewed, amended, or replaced?

Commentary by James Shott

Congress is trying to decide whether or not to extend the USA PATRIOT Act, and GOP presidential hopeful Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is so strongly opposed to doing so without at least substantial changes that he conducted a filibuster of sorts last Wednesday. In explaining his action, he said, “I’ve chosen to filibuster the Patriot Act because the Patriot Act is the most un-patriotic of acts.”

A little history: the Patriot Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, only a few weeks after that horrible day. Its title is a ten-letter acronym (USA PATRIOT) that stands for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001."

The Act originally was set to expire after four years, but three legislative actions, the first in 2005, another in 2010 and the last in 2011, have essentially preserved the Act. The current law is set to expire on June 1.

The chaotic mood of the country after nearly 3,000 innocents were brutally murdered by radical Muslim terrorists who crashed four airliners into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, led to a piece of hastily designed legislation to enable the government to better identify and stop terrorist activity. This crisis-driven activity brought allegations of opportunism to hurriedly pass a law that in calmer times would have triggered vigorous and lengthy debate. The bill was put together, voted on, passed, and signed into law only six weeks after the attacks. It passed by a wide margin in the House, and had only one dissenting vote in the Senate.

As Otto von Bismarck said, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” Legislation born crisis is open to deliberate mischief, or damage resulting from its careless creation.

Sen. Paul’s libertarian tendencies lead to objections to breaches of liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, specifically the NSA’s mass phone call data collection program.

"They want nothing more than to keep the national security spy state growing until it tracks, traces and catalogues virtually every detail about every aspect of our lives," he said of the NSA program in a campaign email. "Once government bureaucrats know every aspect of our lives — what we watch, what we buy, what we eat, where we worship — it won't be long until they try to run them 'for our own good.'"

However, not all Republicans agree with this perspective. One of his potential opponents in the GOP presidential race, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is not a fan of critics of the NSA program. “Let me be clear — all these fears are baloney. When it comes to fighting terrorism, our government is not the enemy,” he said. “They want you to think that there’s a government spook listening in every time you pick up the phone or Skype with your grandkids.”

And those two perspectives fairly well outline the opposing positions, one favoring strong methods to protect the citizenry, the other opposing strong methods that infringe, or have the potential to infringe on constitutional guarantees of personal liberty.

But this is not about what Gov. Christie thinks and what Sen. Paul thinks, this is about what the Constitution allows the government to do and what it does not allow. And the conflict between rooting out terrorists and terrorist plots before they occur, and honoring the individual freedom we are guaranteed is a tricky one.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. 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.”

Notice that it does not say, “unless Congress or the President says otherwise.” Mass collection of information about the citizenry fails that test.

Earlier this month the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the NSA’s phone data collection program “exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized,” according to Judge Gerard Lynch’s opinion for the three-judge panel, which does not address the constitutional aspects of the law, but says the NSA program exceeds Congress’ intention, which itself is likely unconstitutional.

We must not allow government to impose actions because of a crisis that in calmer times we would not tolerate. Once government gains a power it is next to impossible to take it away, and once a mechanism is available it is always available for mischievous application. Remember Lois Lerner?

These words, attributed to both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, must be heeded: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

We should do anything and everything within constitutional limits to fight terrorism, but we must not allow even small degrees of unconstitutional activity, not even to combat a known imminent attack. Once that threshold is crossed, reestablishing it will be virtually impossible.

Cross-posted from Observations

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