Monday, June 20, 2011

My Op-Ed: "The Patriot Act and the Quiet Death of the US Bill of Rights"

Just wanted to alert everybody to an op-ed I just had published on the California Progress Report (and looking to have it published elsewhere too). I want to drive traffic to the article, so I'm just going to give you a taste of it here:

The Patriot Act and the Quiet Death of the US Bill of Rights

With the stroke of an autopen from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the once articulate critic of the Patriot Act signed a four year extension of the most dangerous assault on American civil liberties in US history without a single additional privacy protection. 

One would think that this reauthorization would have incited vigorous debate in the halls of Congress and at least a fraction of the breathless 24/7 media coverage allotted the Anthony Weiner “sexting” scandal. Instead, three weeks ago the House (250 to 153) and Senate (72 to 23) approved, and the President signed, an extension of this landmark attack on the Bill of Rights with little notice and even less debate.

Most disturbing was the extension – without modification – of the Act’s three most controversial provisions:
•    allows broad warrants to be issued by a secretive court for any type of record, from financial to medical, without the government having to declare that the information sought is connected to a terrorism or espionage investigation;
•    allows the FBI to obtain wiretaps from the secret court (i.e. “roving wiretaps”,) known as the FISA court, without identifying the target or what method of communication is to be tapped;
•    allows the FISA court warrants for the electronic monitoring of a person (“lone wolf” measure ) for whatever reason — even without showing that the suspect is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist.

Also in need of reform, are what's called National Security Letters (NSLs) – which allow the FBI, without a court order, to obtain telecommunication, financial and credit records deemed “relevant” to a government investigation. The FBI issues about 50,000 a year and an internal watchdog has repeatedly found the flagrant misuse of this power. 

The Long Record of Patriot Act Abuses

Any meaningful debate over whether to reauthorize any and all of these provisions without significant additional privacy protections should include a few key questions. One, have these provisions made us significantly safer (i.e. are there documented incidences they have led to capturing terrorists plotting against us?)? Two, is there any evidence that they have been abused? Three, is their claimed usefulness somehow jeopardized by the kinds of modest reforms privacy rights groups (and others) advocate? And finally, have we created a dangerous constitutional precedent?

Thanks to the relentless work by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) - and information uncovered by the Freedom of Information Act - there is little to no evidence that these provisions, as written, have made us any safer. Yet there’s a long list of incidences of unadulterated government abuse and malpractice for a host of purposes other than fighting terrorism. In other words, the threat this Act, and these particular provisions pose to the basic Constitutional rights of American citizens is not hypothetical, but documented fact.

Continued on the California Progress Report.

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