In October 2001, Congress passed a law in the midst of unprecedented fear and national solidarity. This law was the USA PATRIOT Act. Intended to loosen restrictions on our nation’s investigative bodies—and thus better protect citizens during the subsequent war on terror—certain aspects of this act have instead jeopardized the very freedoms our nation intended to defend.
Buried in the 340 dense pages of new laws—and new freedoms for the Department of Justice—is a little noticed modification in Section 215 that gives federal officials unfettered clearance to library and bookstore records on individual patron loaning and buying habits, even without probable cause. Attorney General John Ashcroft has refused to release even aggregate statistics about the number of times Section 215 has been invoked, and he has consistently refused to respond to Congressional concerns about minimal privacy standards.
But this week, Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., in conjunction with other lawmakers concerned with civil liberty infringement, plans to propose a bill that will reinstate those standards. The details of the bill will be released tomorrow, but it has become very clear over the past 18 months that the PATRIOT Act has eroded far more constitutional privacy controls than appropriate. We have already witnessed the Bush administration’s callous disregard for individual civil liberties; in the fall, we learned of the Pentagon’s proposed plans for “Total Information Awareness,” a program that aims to gather personal electronic information including credit card and bank statements, travel plans and e-mail—without a single warrant.
Sanders and his colleagues should be applauded for addressing the serious and disturbing degree of leeway given to investigators under the PATRIOT Act. While we recognize the need for vigilance in this new era of heightened security, the U.S. must have a transparent process that requires investigators to prove probable cause, which is an essential facet of American legal values. Abandoning these ideals—particularly while we fight to defend them—is unacceptable.