Your Pocket Guide to the Patriot Act
Let’s say you’re having coffee with your new friend Ahmed. Neither of you know it, but Ahmed is on a Federal watchlist. (In fact, “Ahmed the Tall” is one of the names on the government’s No Fly list, according to the ACLU.) Maybe Ahmed is a terrorist. Maybe he’s merely a middle-eastern exchange student who’s politically active. Or maybe he’s just really really tall. Regardless, there’s now a laundry van across the street with three FBI agents inside, and they’re recording his (and your) every move.
At the end of your conversation, Ahmed hands you his card. You kiss each other on the cheek. Congratulations, you are now part of the Ahmed investigation.
Under the Patriot Act, you don’t have to be a terrorist, or even do anything wrong, to be investigated. Anyone deemed “relevant” to a terror investigation is fair game.
Once that happens, the FBI can wiretap your phone-and not just one phone, but every phone you ever use (what’s known as a “roving wiretap”). That means they’re also eavesdropping on your coworkers, your family, and your friends. To get the wiretap approved, the Feds must go before one of 11 Federal judges who’ve been appointed to the FISA court by the Chief Justice. (FISA stands for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.)
Since 2001, the Feds have applied for 5,645 wiretaps under the FISA rules. The court has turned down exactly three requests. That’s a success rate of 99.93%. Even rubber stamps--and I mean the really good, expensive kind--aren’t that reliable.
But a wiretap is only the start. The Feds can break into your house while you’re not home and take a look around. They eventually have to tell you that they did a “sneak and peek,” but with a friendly judge they can delay notification indefinitely. As of April 2005, the FBI had requested and obtained 155 ‘delayed notification’ warrants.
Wait, it gets better. G-men can go to your local library and ask them what books you’ve checked out (hope you aren’t studying Islamic history). They can go to your doctor and demand your medical records (hope you haven’t had an abortion, an HIV test, or treatment for an STD). They can go to your ISP and find out every Web site you’ve visited. They can go to your boss and copy all your personnel records. And so on. And if they use a National Security Letter to do it, they don’t even need a judge’s approval; all they need is the right letterhead. (NSL’s were ruled unconstitutional by a Federal judge last September, but the DOJ is appealing the ruling.)
We don’t know how many National Security Letters the FBI has issued. In January 2003, when the Electronic Privacy Information Center demanded an accounting of NSLs under the Freedom of Information Act, they received a list six pages long--with every piece of information blacked out.
Oh, and by the way, your boss, doctor, librarian, and ISP aren’t allowed to tell you they’ve ratted you out. That means you can’t challenge any of this in court. Odds are you will never even know. So if the Feds made a mistake, and you were really having coffee with Ahmed the Slightly Larger Than Average…. well, there’s a nice fat FBI file somewhere with your name on it. Hope you’re living a clean life.
Of course, the FBI would only use its special powers against really bad evil nasty bomb-throwing terrorists. Right? Well, not exactly.
The Act also covers money laundering, computer fraud, drug trafficking, and other crimes tangential to terrorism. As reported by the New York Times, it’s been used for hundreds of purely criminal cases, such as stolen trade secrets, child porn, forgery, identity theft, smuggling, and more. A GAO report in January 2003 found that more than half of the 266 “terror” convictions claimed by the DOJ had nothing to do with terrorism.
In fact, law enforcement has discovered the Patriot Act is a neat way to get around pesky rules concerning due process, illegal searches and self-incrimination-better known as the 4th and 5th Amendments.
OK, fine. Terrorists and criminals (and those who unwittingly have coffee with them) are targets. How about people whose only crime has been that they disagree with Our Fair Government?
According to the Patriot Act, American citizens cannot be investigated “solely because of First Amendment-protected activities.” This has two interesting implications. One is that if you’re not a U.S. Citizen-say you’re a middle-eastern exchange student - you can be investigated solely because of what you say. The second corollary is that you can be investigated for political activities as long as the Feds can cook up another reason to go after you.
In July 2004, members of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force visited an estimated 40 activists around the country and interviewed them regarding protests planned for the summer’s political conventions. Three young men in St. Louis were tailed for several days and ordered to appear before a grand jury on the day they were scheduled to be in Boston at the Democratic Convention-effectively scuttling their ability to protest. If that’s not a violation of their First Amendment rights, then I’m Ann Coulter in drag.
In that same month, members of the JTTF along with Denver Police SWAT team raided offices for the Derailer Bicycle Collective (a group that repairs bikes and distributes them to the poor) and Food Not Bombs. Perhaps the Feds had them confused with that other group, Bombs Not Food. Or perhaps they feared an attack from terrorists on ten speeds armed with prepackaged meals.
So our Patriot Act roster now reads suspected terrorists, alleged criminals, left-wing political activists, and people who love lattes. Who else is on the list? How about someone who visits the wrong library or checks out the wrong book?
In an op-ed piece in USA Today, Joan Airoldi describes how her library in Washington state was approached by the FBI in June 2004. The Feds demanded a list of everyone who had checked out a particular biography of Osama Bin Laden since November 2001. To its credit, the library challenged the order, calling it a “fishing expedition.” The FBI backed down.
Imagine being investigated by the FBI merely because you wanted to learn more about Osama Bin Laden. Or being interrogated for 90 minutes simply because of books you bought over the Internet.
In October 2004, this happened to the Reverend Raymond Payne as he was crossing the U.S./Canada border. Payne was on an FBI watchlist, despite the fact that he belongs to no terrorist organizations (unless you consider the Methodist Church a terrorist organization), has never engaged in a political protest, and whose lone brush with the law consists of a single traffic ticket. But he did buy copies of the Koran on the Internet, to educate his parishioners about Islam following 9/11. Or maybe it was simply a case of mistaken identity; perhaps there’s a watchlist with Raymond the Religious on it.
Nobody is saying the Feds don’t need help in fighting actual flesh-and-blood terrorists. And if the FBI were infallible and incorruptible, I’d say the Patriot Act is a troubling but necessary piece of legislation. However, the FBI is neither of those things, and this Act needs to close.
If you agree with that statement, you’re in good company. At last count, some 375 cities and five states have passed resolutions condemning the Act.
And it’s not just us bleeding-heart pinkos. Bob Barr, former Republican senator from Georgia and board member of the NRA, is an outspoken opponent. Here’s what he recently wrote in a Washington Times Op-Ed about the Patriot Act:
“We believe that allowing federal agents to secretly search individuals' homes and businesses without notification, poses a grave threat to the fundamental freedoms our Fourth Amendment was written to protect.”
What can you do about it? As tiresome as it sounds, you should write/call/email your congressfolk and senators. Urge them to permit the worst parts of the Act to expire (or “sunset”), and to provide more independent oversight for the parts that don’t. Even if this won’t alter their vote (and in my home state of NC, it surely won’t) they’ll at least be aware of how deeply the Act is reviled.
Urge your local city council to adopt a resolution opposing the Patriot Act. Talk to your friends and neighbors; don’t let them buy the BS spewing from the White House that it’s all about fighting terrorism. It’s not. It’s about creating a Soviet-style police state where privacy and dissent no longer exist.
Lillian Hellman titled her account of the McCarthy witch hunts “Scoundrel Time.” We are living in another era much like it. But now it’s time for scoundrel time to end.