Oct. 26 marks the 10th anniversary of the USA Patriot Act, the first among many bipartisan government assaults on the Bill of Rights over the past decade. It is a time to mourn our lost freedoms.
Our constitutional rights have dramatically eroded, turning the “land of the free” into the “land of the easily intimidated.” We have traded liberty for a false impression of security, and we will regret it.
President Bush originally signed the Patriot Act into law on Oct. 26, 2001, and — despite documented, recurring and ongoing abuses — President Obama has signed reauthorization bills no fewer than three times. Even though more than 400 cities and towns, plus eight states, have issued official resolutions repudiating domestic surveillance, the national security juggernaut has continued to steamroll the Constitution.
The FBI, the National Security Agency and the CIA deploy battlefield surveillance technologies to monitor law-abiding Americans en masse, claim an increasingly vast share of the federal budget and disclaim any meaningful limits on their disturbing powers.
And courts routinely defer to ridiculous claims that topics embarrassing to the government — like outsourcing torture to other countries, or monitoring the e-mail and phone calls of hundreds of millions of Americans without any individualized suspicion — constitute “state secrets” that must be protected for national security reasons.
Meanwhile, Congress has rubberstamped every executive request (whether from Bush or Obama) to shrink the constitutional rights of Americans. After the Patriot Act was first enacted in 2001, Congress repeatedly reauthorized it over bipartisan dissent, enacted the FISA Amendments Act, and then, this fall, entrenched the FBI leadership beyond its statutory term for the first time since J. Edgar Hoover’s reign of intimidation.
The Justice Department’s own internal watchdog has documented numerous abuses of Patriot Act powers. The federal government has issued thousands of improper National Security Letters.
The Patriot Act has also been used by the Departments of Justice and Treasury to seize charities without due process, even though the work of such organizations could advance U.S. interests by alleviating suffering in war-torn areas and winning hearts and minds. The same provisions have enabled investigations of peace, labor and immigrant rights activists in Chicago, Minneapolis and Los Angeles for what essentially amount to thought crimes.
But the abuses extend well beyond the Patriot Act, constructing a whole even worse the sum of its parts. Under Bush — and with the later support of the Obama administration — the National Security Agency launched a secret dragnet warrantless wiretapping scheme, which became public only because intrepid journalists risked prosecution to reveal it. Even though every federal court that ever reviewed the program on its merits declared it unconstitutional, Congress authorized the agency’s wiretapping through legislation in 2008 and immunized telecommunications companies that participated in it.
Under Bush, the attorney general’s guidelines governing FBI operations were overhauled, allowing investigative tactics from the infamous COINTELPRO era, such as infiltrating constitutionally protected ideological groups — on the basis of a secret legal standard that has never been disclosed. And even though the CIA is prohibited from operating within the United States, it has smeared critics and trained local law enforcement in counterproductive profiling techniques.
Never has our government been less accountable to We the People.
Shahid Buttar is the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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