Nation in Danger

June 2005


The Patriot Act is making its way through the legislature again. A nd now, more than ever before in our nation's history, it is important for the people to declare that no risk puts a citizen in fear of greater harm than the loss of liberty, equality, and due process under the law.

The Patriot Act was originally enacted by our national legislature in response to the 911 disaster. It is in time of war, when people feel their safety and security threatened, that governments are most likely to seek to extend the power and prerogatives of the state at the expense of individual liberty and civil rights. Knowing this, some experienced legislators put some very specific time limits on some of the provisions of the Patriot Act. They felt that granting certain privileges to the government to side-step around the Bill of Rights might be expedient in the short term to meet the current national emergency, but that making such privileges more permanent would constitute an abuse of power by the state upon its people.

Certainly by definition, any act which our government takes which is contrary to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights is an abuse of power and should not be tolerated by an informed and intelligent citizenry.

Prominent among the rights that the Bush Administration is seeking to be made permanent are the so-called "Administrative Subpoenas" and especially a provision that allows the executive branch to rule certain administrative subpoenas secret, for national security reasons, without consulting either the judiciary or the legislature. Where is the check or balance to such a system?

Back in the days when J. Edgar Hoover was in charge of the FBI, the FBI did a lot of illegal things. They spent millions of dollars on extensive illegal surveillance of dangerous people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gloria Steinem. They were able to do this because J. Edgar had a very special place within the Washington hierarchy: he had the "goods" on practically everybody, so nobody really complained very loudly when he engaged in pretty flagrantly illegal or politically motivated activities with "his" FBI.

Then the Supreme Court spoke up and said: "No one shall put into evidence in a court of law anything that was obtained through illegal means." Hoover's position was not seriously threatened by this, because he knew that he need only trot his evidence out to be argued in the national press, not the national courts, to ruin lives and careers. However, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors were put on notice that they were responsible not only for upholding the law, but for obeying the law as well.

When the founding fathers framed our governmental system, they borrowed quite a bit from English law, and quite a bit from common sense. Both these sources agreed that cops should not be allowed to gather whatever evidence they wanted in whichever way their fancy chose. They knew that police needed judicial oversight to ensure that the rights of the people were trespassed upon to a minimum. Therefore, before any cop may compel a citizen to hand over private records about someone or come into any citizen's house in search of evidence as an agent of the court, the cop must go to a person who is currently serving as a court judge, and gain their permission to do this. In other words, the cop has to convince a standing judge that the alleged evidence is warranted in some demonstrable way. Court Subpoenas are public documents. Only when the court records are sealed in the public interest are the documents pertaining to those cases taken away from public view.

J. Edgar would have dearly loved to have the Patriot Act, especially those parts about secret administrative subpoenas. What those new rules allow law enforcement to do is to decide to compel your boss to turn over your employment history, force your Internet Service Provider to hand over all your email, or require your local video store to provide a record of your rentals without first proving to a judge that such information is reasonable and to be used legally. In addition, law enforcement can make the subpoenas secret so that you cannot legally tell anyone that the cops invaded your privacy with no reason. If you report this to your local newspaper, or complain on the Internet, you can be sent to jail. If the newspaper prints a story about the unreasonable harassment, the reporter, editor, and ownership of the newspaper may face fines or jail time for conspiring to reveal government secrets.

J. Edgar never had this kind of legal power because at that time the arch-conservatives of his day, like Barry Goldwater, would never have allowed the Constitution to be spat on like this (even in closed session).

This kind of affront to our national liberty and individual dignity is being promulgated by men and women who have contempt for democracy, no belief in our Constitution, and no real concept that the powers of government to inflict its will on its citizens (even in the name of acting in the common defense of the nation) must be limited. They want a blank check. The Patriot Act may not be everything they want, but it is 27 steps closer to tyranny than any legislation ever before contemplated by our government.

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