In the wake of the tragedies that occurred September 11, 2001, fear and panic swept through America. The illusion that the US was somehow immune to such attacks shattered. Panic set in, and very little complaint was made when 45 days later the USA PATRIOT Act was signed into law.
The USA PATRIOT Act is the acronym for what some consider a pretentious and tongue tangling title “United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act”. Ostensibly meant to allow authorities to track down and prevent future terrorist acts against Americans, the act holds no provisions to protect citizens from falling under its edicts. The USA PATRIOT Act allows authorities to trod on first and fourth amendment rights with impunity. Suddenly local authorities were given the same power to investigate citizens as the federal government had against foreign agents.
Freedom of speech was assailed as White house Spokesperson Ari Fleischer warned Americans to watch what they say, and Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel suggested war protestors be prosecuted as enemies of the state. Shades of McCarthyism crept back into view; this time dissent and disagreement with the government was the enemy. The USA PATRIOT Act amends at least 15 existing laws, replacing them with provisions that authorities had requested for years yet Congress consistently rejected.
Article 214 of the act allows authorities to tap and trace legal US citizens from telephone to telephone through roving wiretaps. The wiretaps can be obtained with little or no probable cause, overriding Title III of the Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Judges are compelled to grant any request that has been certified by the government as relevant to an ongoing investigation, whether the judge agrees or not. The length of these warrants were extended from 30 days to 180 days before review and in many cases, agencies do not have to report their results.
These wiretaps extend to any telephone or Internet connection a suspect may use. Compounding the government’s overextension of authority, any person, even one not affiliated with the suspect, who uses the tapped phone or computer is subject to the same surveillance during use.
Article 215 may be the most controversial of all, allowing the FBI access to any records they deem relevant to the investigation. In the past, the FBI could subpoena only business records like car rental, storage facilities and the like, but 215 extends its access to any record. Library, academic, financial, even medical records can be requested. Even bookstore receipts and Internet use records must be provided, even if there is no real probable cause to do so.
Article 215 also forbids anyone who receives such a subpoena to tell anyone. Although the justice department has denied attempts to force libraries and bookstores to hand over information, a survey of 1500 libraries nationwide, revealed that by December 2001, 85 had been approached. Other provisions of the Act allow for property to be searched without notifying the owner, deportation of immigrants with little or no judicial review, and gives the President of the United States the right to decide when trials will be held before military commissions rather than civilian courts. Attorney General Ashcroft also announced his intention to eavesdrop on attorney-client conversations. Thousands of people were arrested, apparently because of ethnicity or religion alone.
The ACLU has been investigating many cases of First Amendment rights being trampled on by officials, some on college and university campuses. A pair of Grinell College students were arrested for hanging the American flag upside down as a protest to the Iraq war. At Durham Technical College, the U.S. Secret Service knocked on the door of a college student who had been reported for having an anti-American poster. Though she didn’t open the door to them, she did answer questions about whether she had any information about Afghanistan or the Taliban. The poster contained an image of George. W Bush against a backdrop of lynch victims and the phrase “We hang on your every word”. Texas executed 152 people while Bush was Governor.
As authorities expanded their powers, and political dissent, race and religious backgrounds became probable cause for investigation, vocal opposition increased and local governments finally spoke out. At least four states and 299 communities have passed resolutions opposing Article 215, recommending to businesses and libraries to destroy or not gather at all, information that identifies patrons by name.
On Saturday October 30, 2004 The Academic Senate of California Community Colleges passed Resolution 13.03, supporting legislation that would repeal those provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that may violate the civil rights and liberties guaranteed in the Constitution. This resolution opposes any legislative or administrative action that would strengthen the government’s ability to conduct secret searches and surveillance of the activities of students, faculty and staff that interfere with the learning process, job duties, and the exercise of free speech and assembly
Since the signing of the USA PATRIOT Act, America has become a place where people can be stalked, arrested and held without due process or counsel for unlimited periods of time. Communication is not necessarily private and speech is no longer the right as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.