Reflections on the Patriot Act

The Patriot Act looks as if it might be about to get scaled back. Three sections of the authoritarian legislation are about to expire unless Congress renews them, which appears less and less likely. The most controversial of these sections is Section 215. The ACLU does a great job summarizing the problems with this section here: (https://www.aclu.org/cases/aclu-v-fbi-foia-case-records-relating-patriot-act-section-215). Meanwhile, Senators like Mitch McConnell and Richard Burr are pushing to allow the NSA two years to dismantle its Orwellian phone records program instead of the generous six months given in the House of Representatives’s bill. If nothing else, the NSA’s program, rooted partly in the excesses of the Patriot Act, should function as a cautionary tale about the dangers of hastily passing a highly complex, questionable bill in a time of panic. There is also a certain irony in McConnell’s warm support for robust, almost totally unchecked government surveillance. One of McConnell’s primary political mentors, Senator John Sherman Cooper (R-KY), was among the strongest critics of excessive wiretapping during his time in office. (Cooper’s time in the Senate was, to borrow a phrase from the great Jon Stewart, “choppy as Hell,” as he served from 1946 to 1949, 1952 to 1955, and 1956 to 1973.) Cooper adamantly opposed allowing evidence gleaned from illegal wiretaps to be used in court and in 1968 was one of just four Senators to vote against the Omnibus Crime Bill–partly on the grounds that it allowed overzealous wiretapping. Additionally, the fact that over thirteen years after the Patriot Act’s original passage, many politicians still want it to continue reminds us how incorrect any claims at the time were that the legislation was just a temporary measure for the War on Terror. The War on Terror is unlikely to end anytime soon, which of course means that if government violations of privacy and due process are to continue as long as the War on Terror continues, they are going to be with us for a long, long time. For the foreseeable future, there will be some people who want to kill us and will try to do so. Eliminating terrorism completely is almost as difficult as eliminating crime completely. Furthermore, I fear that the War on Terror has become self sustaining. When 9/11 took place, the United States had the option of focusing all its antiterrorism energy on Al Qaeda. Instead, the United States also chose to focus its attention on any country connected with Al Qaeda in any way, even countries with no provable link to 9/11. Ignoring the fact that this logic would have required the U.S. to bomb itself for collaborating with Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, we first invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq. These wars could then be used to underwrite government demands for more power to shirt circuit due process. And our latest military intervention in Iraq may well motivate ISIS to try and attack the U.S., an intent which President Obama himself admitted had not been proven before we went to war with Iraq again last year. If there is any chance of the War on Terror being ended or mostly ended, such an event will never come when we continue invading countries without proof that they are planning to attack us–and if our track record is any indicator, we will not stop doing that anytime soon. Hence, we must operate under the assumption that the War on Terror is going to continue at least for decades more and stop believing that sacrifices of privacy rights are just short-term.

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