The Mix

Knock, Knock. Who's There?

Three patriots and 97 suckers.
In December 2005, the Patriot Act was extended until March 10th of this year. The idea was for Senators to actually read the darn thing this time, and take care of the gaping holes and blatant civil liberties violations before renewing it. But last week, all but three Senators voted to renew the Patriot Act for four years basically as it is: overbroad, invasive, and ineffective. The three courageous Senators who must have actually read the act were Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and Jim Jeffords of Vermont.

Here's another riddle. Why would 47 Senators vote in December to extend rather than renew the Patriot Act only to ultimately vote to keep the thing almost exactly as it is? My guess is because, at this point, their not comfortable with the act but not sure exactly why.

If so, they're like most Americans who have a vague queasy feeling when it comes to the Patriot Act. It's not clear, for example, why the Patriot Act insists you tell the bank teller how much your rent is, and why revealing this information to the bank teller and hence the U.S. government would make us feel safer as a country. It's not clear why, for example, libraries that offer internet access are still required to turn over all their visitors records, but those that don't are not. And it's not clear why, exactly, are national interests are served by the vagueness of criminalizing “disruptive or potentially dangerous conduct” at Secret Service events, even when the President, Vice President, or other protectees are not in attendance. But, when told that these provisions of the Act will actually help stop terrorist attacks, Senators would rather cave than be accused of aiding and abetting terrorists.

But there are two key opposition points to the Patriot Act and you'll find their surprisingly similar to the argumets against torture.

One: The Patriot Act doesn't work. Since it's enactment, it hasn't been used to bring down a single terrorist. As of last April, the government has admitted to using roving wiretaps 49 times, seizing personal records 35 times, and using "sneak and peek" by critics, have been used 155 times.
There's no evidence that convictions gotten under the Patriot Act (for cereal smuggling, among other things) couldn't have been gotten without the Act.

Two: It's unethical. As former Rep. Bob Barr (R) of Georgia says, "It severs the very foundation of the Fourth Amendment to say that government can invade a person's privacy and gather information against them without having a sound basis for suspecting that they've done something wrong." There are better ways of protecting the United States that are both more effective and more ethically and morally acceptable.

I know it's hard to keep track in your datebook of what's happening with the Patriot Act, so here's the only important thing to keep in mind: It's not over yet. Senators Fiengold, Bingaman, and Leahy have introduced ammendments that would offer real civil liberties protections. The ACLU has this easy form to follow to support these ammendments and let your Senators know what's wrong with the current Patriot Act.
Rachel Neumann is Rights & Liberties Editor at AlterNet.
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