The Patriot Act and Civil Liberties

A handful of the provisions of the USA Patriot Act are set to expireor sunset on Dec. 31, and Congress is therefore considering which of them to re-authorize. President Bush wants the entire act to be made permanent, contending that it has made the United States safer in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Those attacks led to the act’s passage only 45 days later, after virtually no debate. That haste has led to what some civil rights advocates consider a loss to the checks and balances of power guaranteed under the Constitution, with too much of the power now in the hands of the executive branch.

The full and ponderous title of the act is Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. But a number of the tools made available in its 342 pages have raised concerns that their use has negatively affected our civil liberties. The impact is especially evident in changes in criminal and intelligence laws that allow the federal government greater authority in regard to surveillance and monitoring. Section 213, for instance, generally referred to as the sneak and peek provision, allows police to enter and search a home without informing the occupants beforehand. There is no sunset provision to this section. Critics see it as undermining the heart of the Fourth Amendment, which states that the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated.

Advertisement

Another troubling aspect of the act concerns immigrants, especially those from Arab, Muslim and South Asian countries. Senator Russ Feingold (Democrat of Wisconsin), the only senator who opposed the rapid and debate-free passage of the act, has expressed special concern over the immigrants issue. On Oct. 25, 2002, he pointed out that the government’s new powers may fall most heavily on a minority of our population who already feel particularly acutely the pain of this [kind of] discrimination. And indeed, they have.

David Cole, a professor at the Georgetown Law Center in Washington, D.C., has also expressed concern over aspects of the Patriot Act that adversely affect foreign nationals. He told America, for instance, of a provision that gives the attorney general the power to incarcerate foreign nationals without being obliged to prove them dangerous or a threat to the nation’s security or a flight risk. Another provision allows them to be denied entry to the United States because of statements they made in the past. Thus, the government used the act’s immigration provisions to bar entry to a Nicaraguan, Maria Tellez, who had been invited to teach at Harvard. In an article in The Nation, Professor Cole wrote that she was denied because of her association in the 1980’s with the Sandinistas.

Also troubling is the library provision, which allows the government to monitor in secret not just libraries, but all entities that keep records, including video store and bookstore user records. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claimed this past April that the library provision has never been implemented. But in a recent study, the American Library Association found that—although not directly associated with the Patriot Act—federal investigators were seeking information about library users to a far greater extent than the Justice Department has acknowledged. The House voted on June 15 to block the library provision. It remains to be seen what steps the Senate will take. It is possible that revisions will be made not only to this provision, but also to sneak and peak provisions and those that condone various forms of wiretapping now permitted by the act.

We are not calling for abandoning the act, especially not in the wake of the terrorist attacks in London on July 7. What is needed, as Professor Cole told America, is fixing some of the broader and more sweeping provisions, and restoring some notion of checks and balances in the fight against terrorism. Besides, he added, many of the abuses committed in the name of the war on terror have taken place entirely apart from the sanctions of the Patriot Act itself. The ongoing detention incommunicado of prisoners at the naval base at Guantánamo Bay is one example, and details of alleged mistreatment there continue to emerge. Military doctors there, it was recently reported, have been found to be aiding interrogators in exploiting detainees’ fears and stress levels as a means of gathering intelligence—procedures that clearly violate the most basic concepts of medical ethics. The terrorist attacks should not be taken as justification for trampling upon the human rights of Americans or foreigners. Basic human rights are universal in scope.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
10 years 10 months ago
Your bias is showing again in your editorial “The Patriot Act and Civil Liberties” (8/1). The various points you raise allow for easy correcting responses. I’ll use one as an example, namely, the potential abuse you apparently see of the right/prohibition against “unreasonable search.” The act requires that a search warrant be obtained from a federal court by convincing a judge of the reasonableness of a search in the particular circumstances.

I presume you must have known that related relevant fact. I also presume you would agree there could be a number of good reasons for the need to search the living quarters of a suspected terrorist.

You reference your contributing authority citing the need for changes in the act to provide a “notion of checks and balances.” What changes? I think it would be generally agreed that a search warrant approved by a federal court provides such a notion of a check and balance.

This is the type of slanted editorial opinion which detracts from your image of objectivity and seems inconsistent with the test of intellectual honesty.

9 years 8 months ago
It is a sad situation to know that medical personnel who take an oath to do no harm are participation in such an atrocity. The article is interesting. It is opionated, giving the author's views on what should be done.
9 years 7 months ago
I see why the author feels that civil liberties can be abused because of this act. Racial profiling can become a very dangerous thing when it comes to searching a persons dwelling or monitoring their phone calls with no more than a suspicion. The United States is trying to protect itself from further terrorist acts but I'd don't know if it's worth trampling over citizens' rights.
9 years 5 months ago
The founders of our constitution would be saddened to know that Americans rights have been violated.
9 years 3 months ago
The Patriot Act was designed to prevent future terrorist attacks on America and its interests. While some cases may be a bit extreme in how the rights of certain US citizens and/or foreigners are affected, it is undeniably understandable. Therefore cases similar to Maria Tellez's should be viewed more closely, but overall the Patriot Act is worth every life that is being saved.
9 years 2 months ago
I think that this article is a prime example of how critical thinking and logic skills were not utilized. This article seems biased in nature and seeping with the writer's own opinions and feelings toward the topic. As far as the Patriot Act in itself, it was also written in haste, without applying the basic rules for logical and critical thinking skills. As an end result, our basic rights were underminded.
8 years 8 months ago
We are not finding the right way to fit within the rock and the hard place. When things can be done behind closed doors, you will always attract abuse of power. We are grateful that we as Americans will never have to face the horrors of being tortured just because we are in jail. We see the movies with such atrocities and think don't ever carry pot in "lower culture" foreign lands. Those heathens will do unspeakable things to Americans in foreign jails. Maybe those behaviors are slowly sneaking in behind our closed doors. Yes, pay attention. Yes, question those you suspect of doing wrong deeds against our freedoms. But do it within our rules of freedoms. Back to the rock and hard place, we can not on the same topic, act like weak parents of spoiled children. The laws have been twisted to allow some evils continue to take place. Porn jumping on screen while surfing the internet. Drug dealers buying people's silence. Let's base our laws on a show of hands - to decide if someone is guilty of wrong doings. Let's make that tally of hands from the people that are most affected by the problems in question. We could go back to the basics of reasoning and logic to make the laws. Too many gray areas, too many loopholes.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

The establishment and free exercise clauses prohibit the government from impeding or requiring observance of any religious holiday, including Christmas.
Ellen K. BoegelDecember 12, 2017
Newly ordained Bishop Paul Tighe, a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin, greets the faithful during his ordination to the episcopate in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 27, 2016 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).
Bishop Paul Tighe, the secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, has been called “the Vatican's nicest guy.”
Bill McCormick, S.J.December 12, 2017
President Donald Trump waves to supporters during a rally in Pensacola, Fla., Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
Fewer Americans believe in the biblical Christmas story and a growing number are opting not to attend church services.
Michael J. O’LoughlinDecember 12, 2017
The Trump administration has made clear its principles on immigration; Catholics should answer with a list of ways to reform the system with fairness and humanity.
J. Kevin ApplebyDecember 12, 2017