Is the PATRIOT Act an invaluable tool in our fight against terrorism, as the Bush administration would have us believe? Or, rather, is it a blatant violation of the United States Constitution and Americans’ civil liberties? With 91 percent of registered voters unaware of the Act’s encroachment on civil liberties, the entire dispute might appear unnecessary. Unnecessary, that is, until you take a look at the Act in its entirety — all of its 342 pages of verbose details and constitutional infractions. Then you will realize that the White House has silently sacrificed our constitutional protections of due process and civil liberties in the name of “national security.”
The USA PATRIOT Act was passed in great haste and secrecy, with little debate by members of Congress, on Oct. 26, 2001. In July 2003, the Inspector General of the Justice Department reported 34 credible cases in which officials illegally abused the powers of the Patriot Act. Another report by the Inspector General found “significant problems” in the Bush administration’s actions toward 762 foreigners held on immigration violations after Sept. 11, 2001. The report revealed that the FBI took too long to determine whether the foreigners were involved with terrorism, and that dozens endured “lock-down” conditions 23 hours each day and slept under bright lights.
Section 215 of the Act has been particularly controversial. Under this provision, the FBI can issue wiretaps and monitor citizens’ use of the Internet and public libraries without adhering to the probable cause standard set for warrants by the Fourth Amendment. According to the guidelines set by Section 215, the government need only meet the low, ill-defined standard of “relevancy” in order to justify such monitoring. The provision also violates the First Amendment, as it carries a gag order, criminalizing any discussion of FBI searches with the threat of prosecution. Contrary to Ashcroft’s dismissal of citizens’ concerns, particularly expressed by librarians, as “baseless hysteria,” one survey by the University of Illinois in December 2001 found that the FBI had already approached 85 out of some 1500 libraries.
The PATRIOT Act directly affects all of us as students. Under the PATRIOT Act, the Attorney General now has the jurisdiction to collect previously inaccessible information — including name, address, visa classification, academic status, disciplinary action, or criminal involvement — from educational institutions about foreign students. According to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), about 200 colleges and universities have already turned over student information to the FBI, INS and other law enforcement officials.
“A Pakistani friend of mine decided to stay in England for college just because of the horror stories he had heard from Muslim friends and relatives of his — everything from verbal and physical abuse to questioning and registration. It’s really disconcerting when one’s peers — smart, educated students — are so intimidated by a nation’s policies that they would rather not come at all,” said Amia Srinivasan ’07, an international student from London, England.
Nonetheless, despite these gross violations, the Bush administration is now attempting to push forward additional and more intrusive measures to infringe even further upon our civil liberties. After trying and failing to implement these measures under the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, with the American people vehemently expressing their disapproval, the Bush administration is now working to pass similar initiatives into law in a piecemeal fashion. President Bush proposes expanding the use of the federal death penalty and blocking bail for suspects connected with terrorist crimes. More alarmingly, Bush wishes to undermine the constitutional checks on executive and legislative powers by allowing administrative subpoenas to be issued without judicial approval.
These efforts mark a postural shift toward recognizing a constant state of war — a war without end, a war without a designated enemy, a war in which the rights of citizens are stripped away in an effort to ensure greater security. We have seen the original Patriot Act used against drug offenders and other crimes entirely unrelated to terrorism. We have seen the Patriot Act used to interrogate 8,000 Arab and South Asian immigrants because of their religious or ethnic backgrounds, and not because of actual wrongdoing. We have even seen the Patriot Act used to designate citizens as “enemy combatants,” to be held without trial, without bail and without access to an attorney.
It is our duty as American citizens to reject these egregious infringements upon our civil liberties. As Senator Russell Feingold, the Senate’s lone opposition vote to the PATRIOT Act, forewarned, “Preserving our freedom is one of the main reasons that we are now engaged in this new war on terrorism. We will lose that war without firing a shot if we sacrifice the liberties of the American people.”
Yassmin Sadeghi is a freshman in Morse College and a member of the Yale College Democrats.