Wednesday, September 7, 2011

One of the least savory fruits of 9/11

The New York Magazine has been publishing a whole raft of commemorative articles as the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks draws near. One of them set my teeth on edge. It's headlined "Patriot Act: The kitchen-sink approach to national security". Here's an excerpt.

“Patriot Act” was appropriately overt. Before 9/11, when politicians spoke of “patriots,” they usually meant soldiers. Now prosecutors and the FBI were reaching for the same vanity — that they were the hard tip of freedom — and the same license to pursue enemies without much oversight or meddling. When it was signed into law six weeks after the attacks, the act made it easier to wiretap American citizens suspected of cooperating with terrorism, to snoop through business records without notification, and to execute search warrants without immediately informing their targets (a so-called sneak-and-peek). Privileges once reserved for overseas intelligence work were extended to domestic criminal investigations. There was less judicial oversight and very little transparency. The bill’s symbolism mattered also, signaling that the moral deference previously given to the Special Forces would be broadened until it encompassed much of the apparatus of the American state. Local prosecutors, military policemen, CIA lawyers—these were indispensable patriots too.

The Patriot Act was mostly a Republican project at its origin, but it would have died long ago without the support of Democrats. Liberals were committed enough to the bill that it took Texas Republican Dick Armey to insist that the new privileges of the Patriot Act would indeed sunset, unless the president asked for, and Congress approved, a reauthorization. In 2005, George W. Bush convinced Congress to renew the act, and in 2010, so did Barack Obama — even though the terrorist threat seemed less urgent, and liberal scholars had concluded that the civil-liberties violations in the bill could be resolved with a few modest changes. Dinh’s original worry — that politicians might not be committed enough to renew these laws — now seems misplaced.

There's more at the link. Perhaps most telling of all is a graphic accompanying the article, showing that of all the delayed-notice search warrants issued in terms of the Patriot Act between 2006 and 2009, 1,618 concerned drug crimes; 122 fraud; and a mere 15 were for terrorism-related offenses. So much for the 'national security' or 'anti-terrorism' credentials of the Act . . .

This is what happens when lawmakers have a knee-jerk reaction to tragedy and terrorism. The Patriot Act may have been well meant, but it's become a catch-all dragnet for crime, rather than the tightly focused anti-terrorism measure it was supposed to be. It's also damaged many of our civil and constitutional rights, perhaps beyond recovery.

It's long gone time this monstrosity was removed from the statute books - forever.


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