Thursday, January 14, 2021

Patriot Act As Worthless As Patriot Missiles In A Genuine War On Terror

jacobin |  Nearly two decades since its initial passage in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Patriot Act has continued to linger in our collective memory. Though few Americans probably remember much about its provisions or specifics, the Bush-era legislation long ago entered into general usage as an synonym for heavy-handed domestic surveillance and institutional overreach — the words “Patriot Act” now being practically synonymous with secrecy, eavesdropping, and the rolling back of civil liberties under the intentionally broad guise of “national security.”

Given the law’s contents and implications in practice, this reputation is well deserved. Passing the Senate with only a single dissenting vote, the Patriot Act dramatically expanded the power of federal authorities to spy on ordinary Americans with minimal oversight: enabling the FBI to obtain detailed information about citizens’ banking history and personal communications without having to seek judicial approval and even allowing “sneak and peek” searches of homes and offices. “The Patriot Act,” in the rather blunt words of a brief prepared by the ACLU, “[turned] regular citizens into suspects.”

Predictably, a great deal of law enforcement activity resulted from the ludicrously titled law (USA PATRIOT was a backronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”). According to data released by the Department of Justice, the FBI made hundreds of thousands of incursions into personal phone, computer, and financial records in the years immediately following its passage — the utility of these searches in identifying or preventing actual terrorist activities being debatable, to say the least.

Despite passing with widespread support, the Patriot Act was still considered extreme enough for lawmakers to attach sunset clauses to several of its major provisions, guaranteeing their expiry in lieu of congressional renewal (which, incidentally, eventually came under George W. Bush and again under Barack Obama).

One prominent Delaware lawmaker, however, felt it didn’t go far enough.

Ahead of the nearly unanimous October 25, 2001, Senate vote on the Patriot Act, Joe Biden was regularly claiming the law as his own, boasting in an interview with the New Republic: “I drafted a terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing. And the bill John Ashcroft sent up was my bill.” Biden wasn’t wrong. In fact, key parts of the Bush administration’s signature national security law were drawn from provisions contained in Biden’s own 1995 anti-terrorism bill. Originally called the Omnibus Counterterrorism Act, Jacobin’s Branco Marcetic summarized it contents as follows:

The bill made “terrorism” a new federal crime, allowed those charged with terrorism to be automatically detained before trial, outlawed donations to government-designated terrorist groups, allowed electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists, and created a special court to deport noncitizens accused of terrorism (ironically, when Bush had proposed a similar measure years before, Biden had denounced it as “the very antithesis of our legal system”). It also let the government use evidence from secret sources in those trials.

Calling the Patriot Act “measured and prudent” during an approving speech on the Senate floor, Biden would nonetheless lament the removal of sections from his 1995 bill that would have given police even more sweeping powers of surveillance.