Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the U.S. government put into law the USA Patriot Act, which gave law enforcement several tools with which to combat terrorism. Some think the Patriot Act is an excellent way to combat the terrorist threat and point to the fact that no more terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11 have happened since the Act was put into effect. Others think the Patriot Act is invasive and grants law enforcement too much power, creating a situation ripe for abuse. The purpose of this paper is to consider the Patriot Act from different angles.
The Patriot Act grants law enforcement several special powers. Amongst these are the three provisions which were on the verge of expiring in 2009, as described by a New York Times article entitled “Battle Looms Over the Patriot Act.” Those provisions, which expand the power of the FBI, include “roving wiretap” court orders which allow agents to get a flexible court order to track a suspect that may change phones several times while under surveillance, versus forcing the agents to get a new court order every time. The second provision grants the FBI the authority to “seize ‘any tangible things’ deemed relevant to a terror investigation,” from bank records to diaries (Savage, 2009). The third provision is the “lone wolf” proviso, in which agents are granted court orders to wiretap terrorism suspects not affiliated with terrorist groups or organizations. These provisions grant the FBI and other law enforcement greater leeway in the surveillance, tracking, and investigating of terrorism suspects, relying on tools already in place and frequently used for mobsters and drug-related organizations. In short, as one author put it, the Patriot Act results in “Enhanced criminal law enforcement facilitates a wider range of terrorism investigations and prosecutions using preemptive rationales” (Banks, 2011, p. 5).
Views of the Patriot Act
One view of the Patriot Act accepts the loss of privacy as a willing sacrifice in the pursuit of people who would undermine, threaten, and attack the American way of life. The people are comfortable with it call that loss of privacy “the price of freedom.” There is a “whatever it takes” sensibility in their approach to the Act which suggests that they may even be willing to accept violations of privacy, not just the loss of it.
The other view of the Patriot Act sees it as insidious, an unnecessary step in the process of counterterrorism. They assert that that the right to privacy should still be in effect, that it is difficult to justify the invasion of people’s privacy with such little oversight. They suggest that in this invasion of privacy that their freedoms have been curtailed. Melodramatic proponents of this way of thinking might say “the terrorists have won” because of the extended surveillance powers of the FBI. Some people fear the fact that it seems that law enforcement has carte blanche with regard to what they can do in the course of a terrorism/counterterrorism investigation. They fear the Patriot Act is the first step toward a military state.
What Do I Think About the Act
In a very general way, I think the FBI and law enforcement should have the abilities granted to them in the Patriot Act. Like most Americans, I am still terrified, saddened, and appalled by the events of 9/11. Terrorism is unacceptable, and I think it’s a natural reaction to want to make sure it never happens again.
However, what bothers me about the Act is that there is a lack of oversight. Furthermore, the FBI doesn’t necessarily have the best track record regarding who and what to investigate. In fact, “prior efforts by the FBI dating to the 1970s already equated many forms of peaceful and legal political activity with violence” (Greenberg, 2011, p. 35). This makes me question the objectivity of the FBI and its ability to distinguish potential from real threat.
I also worry about civil liberties. Like the first view of the Act described above, I am – to a small degree – comfortable with the loss of some privacy if it helps deter another terrorist attack. But I’m more firmly in the second view, and despite the New York Times article asserting that the FBI’s use of those three provisions has not been as extensive as one might think, I am still wary of abuse. I am wary about the civil rights of individuals being protected in the course of the investigation; I fear racial profiling (Kleiner, 2010).
I do appreciate the time that is saved by things like the “roving wiretaps” – I’m fine with that. That seems efficient and makes sense. I’m less comfortable with the second provision in which tangible things can be seized with what appears like very little justification. I’m comfortable with the “lone wolf” provision as well, as individuals like the Unabomber clearly indicate that terrorists don’t have to be in groups in order to accomplish their goals. Those lone wolves have the potential to be as deadly and hard to track as terrorist organizations are.
I have a much better understanding of the Patriot Act now than I did before I read the two articles. I feel less intimidated and worried about my privacy being invaded. Notice I said “less intimidated and worried” – I still feel that way. I must reiterate: I am concerned about the lack of more meaningful oversight with regard to the Patriot Act. It would be very easy to abuse the powers that the Act grants the FBI and law enforcement. One hopes that those who swear to serve and protect will do just that – serve and protect – but in the fervor to eradicate potential terrorist threats, I’m afraid it would be easy to forget the protect part. So far, I have not heard about any significant cases of rights violations as a result of the Patriot Act, but that does not mean it can’t still happen. Let’s hope it never does.
- Banks, C. P. (2010). Security and freedom after September 11. Public Integrity, 13(1), 5-24. doi:10.2753/PIN1099-9922130101
- Greenberg, I. (2011). The FBI and the making of the terrorist threat. Radical History Review (111), 35-50. doi:10.1215/01636545-1268686
- Kleiner, Y. S. (2010). Racial profiling in the name of national security: Protecting minority travellers’ civil liberties in the age of terrorism. Boston College Third World Law Journal, 30(1), 103-144.