How the Patriot Act Is Being Used to Fight the Drug War and Eavesdrop on Journalists
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With the stroke of an autopen, the once articulate critic of the Patriot Act signed a four year extension of the most dangerous assault on American civil liberties in US history without a single additional privacy protection.
One would think that this reauthorization would have incited vigorous debate in the halls of Congress and at least a fraction of the breathless 24/7 media coverage allotted the Anthony Weiner “sexting” scandal. Instead, three weeks ago the House ( 250 to 153) and Senate ( 72 to 23) approved, and the President signed, an extension of this landmark attack on the Bill of Rights with little notice and even less debate.
Most disturbing was the extension – without modification – of the Act’s three most controversial provisions:
• allows broad warrants to be issued by a secretive court for any type of record, from financial to medical, without the government having to declare that the information sought is connected to a terrorism or espionage investigation;
• allows the FBI to obtain wiretaps from the secret court (i.e. “roving wiretaps”,) known as the FISA court, without identifying the target or what method of communication is to be tapped;
• allows the FISA court warrants for the electronic monitoring of a person (“lone wolf” measure ) for whatever reason — even without showing that the suspect is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist.
Also in need of reform, are what's called National Security Letters (NSLs) – which allow the FBI, without a court order, to obtain telecommunication, financial and credit records deemed “relevant” to a government investigation. The FBI issues about 50,000 a year and an internal watchdog has repeatedly found the flagrant misuse of this power.
The Long Record of Patriot Act Abuses
Any meaningful debate over whether to reauthorize any and all of these provisions without significant additional privacy protections should include a few key questions. One, have these provisions made us significantly safer (i.e. are there documented incidences they have led to capturing terrorists plotting against us?)? Two, is there any evidence that they have been abused? Three, is their claimed usefulness somehow jeopardized by the kinds of modest reforms privacy rights groups (and others) advocate? And finally, have we created a dangerous constitutional precedent?
Thanks to the relentless work by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) - and information uncovered by the Freedom of Information Act - there is little to no evidence that these provisions, as written, have made us any safer. Yet there’s a long list of incidences of unadulterated government abuse and malpractice for a host of purposes other than fighting terrorism. In other words, the threat this Act, and these particular provisions pose to the basic Constitutional rights of American citizens is not hypothetical, but documented fact.
Consider what we know:
• The FBI admitted in a recent report to the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board that it violated the law at least 800 times on national security letters, going well beyond even the loose safeguards in the original provision. According to the report the FBI “may have violated the law or government policy as many as 3,000 times” between 2003 and 2007, according to the Justice Department Inspector General, while collecting bank, phone and credit card records using NSLs.
• As Adam Sewer of the American Prospect notes: "It's no secret that the FBI's use of NSLs - a surveillance tool that allows the FBI to gather reams of information on Americans from third-party entities (like your bank) without a warrant or without suspecting you of a crime - have resulted in widespread abuses. All that the FBI needs to demand your private information from a third-party entity is an assertion that such information is "relevant" to a national security investigation -- and the NSLs come with an accompanying gag order that's almost impossible to challenge in court.”
• NSLs were used by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to demand that libraries turn over the names of books that people had checked out. In fact, there were at least 545 libraries that received such demands in the year following passage of the Patriot Act alone.
• The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) uncovered "indications that the FBI may have committed upwards of 40,000 possible intelligence violations in the 9 years since 9/11." It said it could find no records of whether anyone was disciplined for the infractions.
• Under the Bush Administration, the FBI used the Patriot Act to target liberal groups, particularly anti-war, environment, and anti-globalization, during the years between 2001 and 2006 in particular.
• According to a recent report by the ACLU, there have been 111 incidents of illegal domestic political surveillance since 9/11 in 33 states and the District of Columbia. The report shows that law enforcement and federal officials work closely to monitor the political activity of individuals deemed suspicious, an activity common during the Cold War – including protests, religious activities and other rights protected by the first amendment. The report also noted how the FBI monitors peaceful protest groups and in some cases attempted to prevent protest activities.
• According to a July 2009 report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, only three of the 763 "sneak-and-peek" requests in fiscal year 2008 involved terrorism cases. Sixty-five percent were drug related.