Home / US Patriot Act: Compromising Americans’ Civil Liberties

US Patriot Act: Compromising Americans’ Civil Liberties

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Two weeks before President Bush signed Congressional legislation that made permanent all but two sections of the US Patriot Act, State College, Pa., became the 397th American community to reaffirm the belief that the Constitution and Bill of Rights take precedence over any federal law. Not one of those resolutions should have been necessary. Nor should the legislatures of eight states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, and Vermont — have had to pass legislation affirming the rights of all Americans. But they had to, and they did.

Encompassed by a nation in fear and a White House that was willing to exert extraordinary pressure to enact a political agenda, Congress overwhelmingly passed the US Patriot Act six weeks after 9/11. Most members didn’t read any of the 342-page bill, having been given less than 48 hours to do so by the Republican leadership. President Bush had called the Act necessary to defeat the terrorists; Attorney General John Ashcroft had said that anyone not supporting the bill would be aiding the terrorists. There was only one problem in the legislation — it violated six Constitutional amendments.

The Act gave wide latitude to the government to search and seize property and to probe sensitive documents, such as medical records, without a court warrant, and to restrict defendants from using the courts to protest the intrusion upon their rights of privacy or even to be allowed to be brought before a court to defend themselves. To mitigate that somewhat inconsequential unconstitutional problem, Congressional leaders inserted a “sunset” clause, calling for 16 of the more controversial 150 sections of the Act to terminate by Dec. 31, 2005.

About two years before the sunset — with the U.S. mired in the Iraq quagmire and Osama bin Laden still running al-Qaeda — the Bush–Cheney Administration began a massive political campaign not only to keep those sections, but also to further restrict human rights. They claimed that because the nation was at war, the Act was essential. While the President falsely claimed the entire Patriot Act, not just 16 sections, would cease at the end of the year — and, thus, the terrorists would win — and while most of the nation’s mass media failed to point out the President was wrong — the American people had begun to realize that the government’s use of the Patriot Act didn’t result in capturing terrorists as much as it did upon violating Constitutional rights of the innocent.

By now, conservatives and liberals had begun forming alliances to oppose the Patriot Act. Among conservatives who opposed provisions of the Act are Newt Gingrich, former House speaker; Bob Barr, former congressman who led impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton; and Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. Among major national organizations opposing the Act are the ACLU, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the National League of Cities, and the largely-conservative American Bar Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers.

About one month after President Bush used his 2005 State of the Union Address to again push for full renewal of the Patriot Act, Nancy Kranich began a campaign to get her new hometown to formally oppose it. Kranich’s term as president of the American Library Association ended three months before 9/11, but as a Board member and then as chair of the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, she had pushed the ALA to become one of the first national associations to raise concern about the destruction of individual rights under the Patriot Act.

By the time she began working with the national Bill of Rights Defense Committee to pass a resolution in State College, more than 300 other communities had passed resolutions opposing what the jingoistic President and his Rasputin Vice-President were doing in the name of fighting terrorism. The official response by John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice to the community resolutions that had opposed the Act was the opposition were “either in cities in Vermont, very small population, or in college towns in California. It’s in a lot of the usual enclaves where you might see nuclear-free zones, or they probably passed resolutions against the war in Iraq.” Those “very small population” cities included Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

A previous attempt to pass a resolution in State College had failed. Opposition from the mayor and borough council, as Kranich learned, was because most of them believed this wasn’t a local issue, that they didn’t want a resolution telling the police how to do their work and, as the mayor said, they didn’t want “marginal groups who would come to council to ask for [their own] resolution.”

“That’s when I knew I had to frame the campaign to deal with those issues, while educating the people about the Patriot Act itself,” says Kranich. Through national forums, the League of Women Voters found that Americans were more likely to recognize the threats to their deeply valued civil liberties when they learned more about the Act. Combined with an extensive education campaign, Kranich and a growing core of volunteers attended community events, worked with student groups at Penn State, passed out flyers, and talked with people to “get a sense of the community.”

While Kranich and her committee were educating residents, the House of Representatives, cowering to Presidential powers, overwhelmingly supported making permanent the entire Patriot Act, including those sections that intruded upon civil liberties. The Senate was more reluctant. Fifty-two of the 100 senators, including eight Republicans, wrote a letter to the Senate leadership calling for a three month extension — later raised to six months — to allow for a calming period and a time to build into the four-year-old Act new citizen safeguards.

“This obstruction is inexcusable,” a furious President Bush lashed out after learning of the letter, and demanded the Senate follow the wishes of the House. Again invoking the 9/11 Bunker Mentality he had constructed to explain most of his actions, Bush raged that the “senators obstructing the Patriot Act need to understand that the expiration of this vital law will endanger America and will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers.”

With the Act mired in controversy, Kranich took a new approach. “We appealed to their oaths of office,” says Kranich, who spent hours talking with members of council and the police, assuring them that when they took their oaths of office they promised to uphold the Constitution. Petitions also helped the elected officials understand the will of the people – more than 700 residents had signed petitions in favor of the resolution. A petition to support the Patriot Act had about 50 signatures.

Nevertheless, Council members were now getting threats from residents who supported the Patriot Act. Most of the letters and phone calls centered around the fallacious argument that passing such a resolution would undermine the ability not only of the Bush–Cheney Administration to “catch terrorists,” but would hurt federal funding for State College.

Under a barrage of hate mail, combined with Presidential threats and rants, the people in State College, says Kranich, “were now getting ‘cold feet,’ and there was a lot of tension.” Her committee increased its efforts to educate the people.
With Congress still arguing about extending suppression of civil liberties, about 150 people packed the borough council chambers the evening the resolution was to be introduced. Those unable to attend the meeting could watch it on local public access cable.

Fifteen spoke in favor, five opposed it. And then Nancy Kranich spoke for those who were silenced. She said she was speaking for those who were afraid to sign the petitions or speak out because they feared being watched, detained, or deported. The fear of the power of government to chill dissent is one of the greatest fears, says Kranich, and yet, “It’s easy to lose those rights if we don’t have the courage to speak up.”

The Council did pass the resolution, 6–0, telling the nation that it affirms “its strong resolve to fight terrorism, but also affirm[s] that any actions to end terrorism must not be waged at the expense of fundamental liberties, rights, and freedoms of all people regardless of race, culture, and ethnicity.” Mayor Bill Welch, who opposed the Resolution from the beginning, refused to sign it.

Congress made 14 of the 16 “sunset” clauses permanent and extended the other two sections by four years. Congress did allow citizens to challenge the Act’s “gag order” which had forbidden anyone from disclosing they were being investigated, removed a requirement that citizens under any kind of federal suspicion must inform the FBI if they contact an attorney, removed most libraries and bookstores from requirements to disclose who read what book, promised to look into the issue of civil liberties, and then claimed that some minor cosmetic changes was a “compromise.” That “compromise” ends one year after President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney are out of office – and several thousand other Americans will have had their civil liberties compromised.

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  • RedTard

    I hear a constant drumbeat that the patriot act is taking away our liberties. What liberties are they taking away specifically?

    Local cities may be protesting the patriot act to distract you from what they themselves are doing. They take away private property and hand it over to political donors. The constantly increase their control through zoning and regulation of property that is lucky enough not to be taken away. They pass laws about how high your grass can be cut and where you can park the car you bought on the land you paid for. They pass little nanny laws about smoking, seatbelts, cell phones, guns, and even our food. They radar your cars without a warrant, with cameras on every corner and at every toll owned by privately held companies that watch your every move.

    Our rights and liberties are indeed under attack, but if your foolish enough to think the worst of it is that you can’t run out and warn your terrorist friends when you’re under investigation then you are sadly mistaken.

    Oh, I forgot, that part about warning the terrorists got struck down by the ever vigilant watchdogs. Too bad they missed the part where governments can take any individuals house away, an honest mistake I’m sure.

  • JP

    How about the right to borrow a book from the library without the government secretly gaining access to a record of it? PATRIOT takes that away.

    How about the right to there being objective oversight of surveillance against Americans? PATRIOT takes that away by expanding the number of cases that qualify for “no probable cause necessary” under FISA, which makes it even more appalling that the Bush admin chose to circumvent FISA for the NSA program.

  • neocondi

    I am sorry, but I just don’t feel oppressed by the Patriot act. I haven’t heard of a single case of abuse. The Clinton’s abused privacy rights with the FBI file scandal and they were never punished. It’s all about character.

    Nixon without Patriot Act = spying on politicl opponents.
    Clinton without Patriot Act = spying on political enemies.
    Bush WITH the Patriot Act = only terrorists are spied on.

    Bush is not a scoundrel so the law is not abused.

  • At the risk of being self-promotional, to those who don’t believe that any rights are being taken away by the PAT Act, why not read my book, AMERICA’S UNPATRIOTIC ACTS–it documents specific cases. Further, let’s just pretend that there were no cases, the mere fact that the Act ALLOWS civil liberties to be taken away is enough of a reason to oppose it. But, as I stated, check out the book–also the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the American Booksellers Association, American Library Association, American Bar Assn.–and dozens of otehr national orgs. have specifics.

  • Dave Nalle

    Neocondi. Bush may not be abusing the powers inherent in the Patriot act, but what happens when he leaves office and is replaced by someone totally unscrupulous like a John Kerry?


  • JP

    Neocondi and Dave, even giving Bush the benefit of the doubt, your unquestioning trust in government motives is scary. Even if you trust “Dumbya” I personally find it impossible to believe that Cheney and Karl Rove would be as noble as you imply with such power.

    I’m happy YOU are so comfortable with your internet and library records being subject to search, but I plan to vote for someone with more of a concern for protecting our liberties than you’re showing here come next election.

  • Arch Conservative

    Dave, considering what an abysmall failure Kerry’s campaign was in 2004 I don’t think we ahve to worry about him ever occupying the oval office.

    I would think that Congress and the American people would not allow someone to hold our highest office that would abuse the patriot act regardless of which party they belong to.

    JP I don’t find they’re trust in the Patriot act scary at all. We’ve had it on the books for several years now and the sky hasn’t fallen yet. In fact there are no indications that the Patriot Act will cause this to happen in the near future either.

    I have to tell you that in my experience I have not had my rights infringed upon by this act and I ahve not heard accounts from anyone I have come into contact with of this happeneing.

    Despite the fact that American society has not devolved into a police state there are still many using this issue to play “chicken Little” politics and I think that’s wrong.

  • JP

    Arch, how would you define the sky falling? Would you even be aware if it happened? I don’t even really know how to continue this conversation, as it’s apparent you’re ignoring news stories that threaten your worldview.

    I find the near pariah status given to dissenters to be de-evolution enough for me. I sincerely question whether you’d be aware if your rights to privacy had been infringed upon, and I question your conclusion given the amount of information that the government has requested from the major search engines (as you may be aware, Yahoo and MSN cooperated, only Google objected at first).

    Did you read the recent news release about FBI spying based on a group’s political views? Of course, I’m sure you’ll write off anything related to the ACLU as “liberal propaganda.” That’s your choice, clearly, but not one on which I’d agree with you.

  • Bliffle

    “Nixon without Patriot Act = spying on politicl opponents.
    Clinton without Patriot Act = spying on political enemies.
    Bush WITH the Patriot Act = only terrorists are spied on.

    How do you know? How CAN we know when the whole operation is so secretive and there is no oversight by FISA?

    “Bush is not a scoundrel so the law is not abused.”

    But Bush is, evidently, a scoundrel.

  • RedTard


    I got one better. Two police cruisers were spying on me with fancy electronic detection devices on my way home today, I was also spyed by three red light cams and a toll booth all without warrants.

    Every American is under surveillance all the time. So what? Did anyone get arrested or have their rights violated. If they weren’t doing anything wrong then that have nothing to worry about just like me with my friendly neighborhood revenue generating cameras.

    I don’t like being under surveillance one bit. I don’t like cameras or mandatory drug tests or radar guns or company email policies. Why am I not on the news? Oh yeah, because I’m not some left wing ‘victim’ group.

  • JP

    RT, if that’s how you look at it, I guess I’m not willing to grant Bush carte blanche access to my personal information because I’m not some right wing fundamentalist freak who loves all things GOP. Apparently we’ll be agreeing to disagree.

  • JP did you even read my comment #5 before responding to it and lumping me in with AC? Or do you just see my name on a comment and assume that you disagree with it without reading it?

    The issue has nothing to do with whether or not Bush has or has not abused the powers of the Patriot Act. It has to do with the potential of any administration or just random investigatory agencies of abusing this power for their own purposes.


  • Arch Conservative

    JP I would define the sky as falling when I witness widespread incidents of innocent American citizens having thier rights infringed upon. I would define the sky falling as the actual creation of a police state, which many on the far left are telling us we are only two steps away from. Being as that neither of these is currently true I would say the sky isn’t even close to falling.

    There are different types of dissent JP. There is clear thinking, rational, dissent such as saying “I believe the war in Iraq is wrong because the administration didn’t prepare well enough and it could have been handled better.” Then there is the dissent of those who scream slogans like “Bush lied, soldiers died,” without any credible proof to back up these accusations. There is the dissent of those who claim America is currently seeking to create an empire and cares nothing for the rest of humanity, make nothing but anti-american remarks and so on…. your Cindy Sheehans and Answer types if you will.

    So when dissent becomes blatant idiocy it is the dissenter themself who is to blame for their “pariah” status.

    You seem to think I never question anything our government does, which is wrong because I do when the it seems prudent to do so. On the other hand you seem like the typee of person who not only questions, but assigns evil ulterior motives to EVERYTHING the government does.

    As for the ACLU all I can say is actions speak louder than words and despite thier lip service to the idea that the represent the civil liberties of all Americans equally….well I know better than that.

  • JP

    Dave, I probably would have given you more credit had you refrained from using your statement as a launching pad to attack John Kerry. You could have simply said that future elections might put others of lower ethical standards in office, and the window of opportunity being created here might be opened wider in the future. However, having said that, you are arguing a different point than AC, and I apologize for not stating that more clearly.

    AC, if you don’t believe that spying on a group for political views is a problem, we’re not operating from the same reality. I’d also advise that as we are talking about a program that (by design) is secretive, it is likely that we do not have access to information about all instances of abuse. To me, one or two reports of abuse are therefore a danger sign indicating the significant possibility that more have already taken place. If you care to ignore that possibility, that’s your choice.

    As for your definitions of dissent: The statement that “the administration didn’t prepare well enough and it could have been handled better” is one that would be made for someone who *agrees* with the premise of the war, not one who opposes it. Like many conservatives, you imply that the only acceptable disagreement is about tactics and methods, not purpose. There is no reason the debate should be confined to such a limited set of options.

    Your two other examples are distortions as well. “Bush lied, soldiers died” is the argument of people on the far left who are convinced of Bush’s deception. There are so many examples of deceptive statements by the administration about weapons of mass destruction, that is not even worth debating any longer. As that was the main reason cited in the beginning for pre-emptive war, it’s a legitimate point of contention.

    Those arguing that the war concerns oil are simply open to possibilities outside those that our government tells us. If you truly believe terrorists “hate us for our freedom” as Bush has stated in the past, you’re naiive. Even reading Osama’s letter to Americans from 2002 shows his sincere objection to our presence in Palestine on the side of Israel. It is also foolish to believe that control of oil supply is not a factor in our policy decisions. Protection from terrorists is certainly valid, and I believe that’s one of the major reasons; but I also believe it’s much more complicated than that. Perhaps you do not.

  • JP, Kerry was just an example. I’d be just as concerned if it was Rick Santorum, Hillary Clinton or any of the many other ideologically blinded candidates we are likely to be offered in the future. Bush certainly has his shortocmings, but he’s pragmatic and not interested in violating peoples rights just to serve some ‘higher cause’.