Attorney General John Ashcroft is on tour. His Department of Justice is fighting to defend the USA PATRIOT Act from growing opposition of local and state governments. I haven’t been to a tour date, but I imagine Ashcroft stepping into the spotlight saying, “Hello, Cleveland! Are you ready to be spied on without your knowledge at the whim of a secret panel of judges?” Ashcroft claims that the act is aimed at protecting freedom, but what exactly is it he is working so hard to defend?
USA PATRIOT stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” The Orwellian practice of dressing up repugnant legislation in folksy innocuous-sounding acronyms seems to have become the hobby du jour in D.C. As an homage to the anonymous staffers who devise these gems, I submit my own contribution to the genre, the EAT PIES (Enslaving America’s Teens as Prostitutes In El Salvador) act. I figure it as a good bet for passage, given the excellent acronym and the popularity of pie. Mary Kate and Ashley, step this way.
Acronyms aside, USA PATRIOT grants powers the Justice department has been seeking for years and for many purposes other than fighting terrorism. The government has always used all means of surveillance without restriction or much oversight in the conduct of foreign espionage. Now, however, the same unrestricted powers are available for use domestically, and the government need only show that foreign intelligence is a possible result of such an investigation, not the primary reason for it. Any surveillance might yield foreign intelligence, and so Justice has been given the ability to spy on whomever they please. No one can say how much this new authority has been abused, as all proceedings are secret. Furthermore, the act allows for the use of “roving” wiretaps, those not confined to a specific location, both on foreign nationals and U.S. citizens. Permits for these wiretaps are obtained in secret and do not require probable cause. Both of these provisions are in direct violation of the fourth amendment, which states that, “no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched.”
Where U-PAT has been insufficiently restrictive of liberty, executive orders have performed admirably. Apparently, the Department of Justice does not trust 12 jurors to distinguish jihadis from law-abiding citizens. It has ordained that any person, including a U.S. citizen, may be detained secretly without legal representation for six months at a time on the sole authority of one judge (which proceeding, of course, is held in secret). This violates the sixth amendment because it’s long and no one seems to care about it. The Bill of Rights was not conceived capriciously, but rather by individuals who had the intimate personal experience of oppression and knew all the tricks of tyranny. They should not be discarded so lightly, especially in a time when we have ostensibly come to value our freedom more than ever.
Ashcroft is right about one thing — there are people out there who want to come here and kill us. They are vicious and unrelenting, and they will occasionally succeed. They can kill a small number of us, but they cannot kill all of us. Furthermore, they cannot make America into a nation like those they come from, where people are not free to speak their minds for fear of harassment, where neighbors spy on each other and people are held secretly without charges or legal aid.
It takes John Ashcroft to do that.
Daily Illini, University of Illinois