The U.S. Senate and House are meeting this week to consider renewing the three controversial provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act.
The provisions enhance the FBI’s ability to monitor suspected individuals without traditional limitations. President Barack Obama is in the seemingly bipartisan group supporting the provisions.
According to the New York Times, the provisions allow for “roving wiretaps,” meaning the FBI can continue to track and listen to suspects’ phone calls even when they change service providers without having to get a new court order. It also allows the seizure of “any tangible things” relevant to terrorism, from diaries to customer records. Finally, the “Lone Wolf” provision allows wiretapping of suspects who are not connected to any terrorist group or foreign government.
These provisions do not require strong enough evidence linking individuals to illegal activity. Justifying the surveillance of suspected individuals is necessary and essential. Already, some congressional leaders have introduced a bill attempting to restrict the surveillance of the Patriot Act.
In addition to the provisions set to expire later this year, debate also surrounds the use of national security letters by the FBI.
Two reports have already surfaced detailing improper use of the letters on several occasions by the FBI, the Times said. The letters call for administrative subpoenas that grant counterterrorism agents the right to seize business records without judicial permission.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights says, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
However, the vague “terrorist” or “criminal” labels justify the dismissal of these rights, allowing the FBI to investigate suspects for any kind of crime.
In 2003, Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said: “There are many provisions in the Patriot Act that can be used in the general criminal law … I think any reasonable person would agree that we have an obligation to do everything we can to protect the lives and liberties of Americans from attack, whether it’s from terrorists or garden-variety criminals.”
The Patriot Act was passed quickly after Sept. 11, 2001, as a measure to secure the U.S from terrorist threats like al-Qaida. The bill was not passed in order to enhance the investigation on non-terrorist crimes.
It is worth considering whether legislation would have passed if its language had resembled Corallo’s comments. Many of the targeted individuals have in fact been drug smugglers, blackmailers and other “garden-variety” criminals, the Times said.
Those who are not criminals or terrorists might not be worried about the provisions. However, it is important to understand that this is a dangerous precedent.
The definition of terrorist may become too loose, leading to overzealous investigation and convictions.
The president and congressional leaders need to reflect on the potential results of this intelligence gathering rather than solely on the ideological claim that it saves Americans.
Justin Rivera is a senior majoring in history.