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|Renewing the Patriot Act While America Sleeps - Page 2|
|Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries|
|Written by John Whitehead|
|Friday, 28 January 2011 07:10|
Page 2 of 2
What the Patriot Act and its subsequent incarnations did was legitimize what had previously been covert and frowned upon as a violation of Americans' long-cherished privacy rights. Thus, what began with the passage of the USA Patriot Act in the fall of 2001 has snowballed into a massive assault on our constitutional freedoms, our system of government and our fundamental philosophies and way of life, as a recent report from attorney Emily Berman of the Brennan Center for Justice makes clear.
Pointing to guidelines implemented by Attorney General Michael Mukasey in December 2008 that loosened restrictions on the FBI's investigative powers, Berman notes that the changes granted "the FBI license to employ intrusive techniques to investigate Americans when there is no indication that any wrongdoing has taken place. This means that FBI agents can collect and retain vast amounts of information, much of it about the innocent activities of law-abiding Americans. And it can then retain that information indefinitely and share it with other government agencies." Berman continues:
“In the absence of meaningful limitations on the FBI's authority, agents or informants may attend religious services or political gatherings to ascertain what is being preached and who is attending. They may focus their attention on particular religious or ethnic communities. They may gather and store in their databases information about where individuals pray, what they read, and who they associate with. All with no reason to suspect criminal activity or a threat to national security. And then they may keep that information in their databases, regardless of whether it indicated any wrongdoing.
“We also know that without sufficient limits and oversight, well-meaning efforts to keep the homeland safe – efforts which rely heavily on the collection and analysis of significant amounts of information about Americans – can adversely impact civil liberties. Indeed, history teaches that insufficiently checked domestic investigative powers frequently have been abused and that the burdens of this abuse most often fall upon disfavored communities and those with unpopular political views. Investigations triggered by race, ethnicity, religious belief, or political ideology may seem calibrated to address the threat we face, but instead they routinely target innocent people and groups. Beyond the harm done to individuals, such investigations invade privacy, chill religious belief, radicalize communities and, ultimately, build resistance to cooperation with law enforcement.”
To those who have been paying attention, this should come as no real surprise. After all, the history of governments is that they inevitably overreach. Thus, enabled by a paper tiger Congress, the president and other agencies of the federal government have repeatedly laid claim to a host of powers, among them the ability to use the military as a police force, spy on Americans and detain individuals without granting them access to an attorney or the courts. And as the government's powers have grown, unchecked, the American people have gradually become used to these relentless intrusions into their lives.
In fact, since 9/11, we've been spied on by surveillance cameras, eavesdropped on by government agents, had our belongings searched, our phones tapped, our mail opened, our email monitored, our opinions questioned, our purchases scrutinized (under the USA Patriot Act, banks are required to analyze your transactions for any patterns that raise suspicion and to see if you are connected to any objectionable people), and our activities watched. We've also been subjected to invasive patdowns and whole-body scans of our persons and seizures of our electronic devices in the nation's airports (there were 6,600 such seizures in airports alone between October 2008 and July 2010). We can't even purchase certain cold medicines at the pharmacy anymore without it being reported to the government and our names being placed on a watch list. And it's only going to get worse.
Most Americans have been lulled into thinking that the pressing issues are voting in the next election or repealing health care. This is largely due to the media hoopla over the Tea Party, the recent elections and the health care law, and the continuous noise from television news' talking heads. But the real issue is simply this – the freedoms in the Bill of Rights are being eviscerated, and if they are not restored and soon, freedom as we have known it in America will be lost. Thus, Congress should not renew the USA Patriot Act, nor should President Obama sign it into law. If he does so, he might just be putting the final nail in our coffin.
Unfortunately, even many of those civil libertarians who took Bush to task and vocally criticized his civil liberties abuses have been virtually silent in face of President Obama's continuation of Bush programs that undermine the Bill of Rights. For example, The Public Record, a nonprofit news organization based in California, asked prominent civil and human rights leaders "to explain their relatively passive position on the renewal of the Patriot Act. Most did not respond. One who did requested that his name not be used because he is still hoping to energize some of the silent voices." Here's what he had to say:
“Many of my colleagues have just given up on the Patriot Act, either expressly or implicitly (in terms of the mindshare, energy, and resources dedicated to the issue). They don't seem to understand or recall just how foundational this supposedly 'emergency' law was in setting the stage for the infringements that came later.
“Sheer exhaustion plays a role, but the fact that it's been nearly a decade means that generational change is even starting to have an impact, as have all the other irons in the fire – so many other traumatizing events have come up to distract and rightfully demand attention (torture, even broader surveillance, illegal war, assassinations), and a corrosive new so-called realism (cynicism, actually) about the politics of terrorism and the complicity of our fear-driven media and political class, combined of course with a reluctance to undermine our first black president and whatever incremental progressive achievements he can make.
“So the situation's pretty bleak out there, and will only turn around, in my view, if there is much greater bottom-up, local, and peer-to-peer, community-to-community activism.”
It's time to wake up, America.
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