Patriot Act Homeland Security Act 21st Century form foundation United States’ domestic response terrorist attacks September 11, 2001. Many legal political voices advocated acts resulted a reduction rights citizens a loss civil liberties.
The Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act:
Are they a violation of our constitutional rights?
According to the U.S. government, the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act gave the government the necessary tools to investigate acts of terror, including greater leeway in the use of surveillance technology; greater leeway in sharing information between law enforcement agencies, and increased the penalties for terrorist-related crimes (The U.S. Patriot Act, 2014, Department of Justice). However, it is very difficult to establish whether a law has genuinely prevented crime, particularly a crime with such complex causality as terrorism. Furthermore, civil liberties groups have criticized the Act for limiting the freedom of innocent Americans. Rather than improving the safety of Americans, organizations such as the ACLU allege that it has merely made the U.S. more vulnerable to charges that it practices discrimination against Muslims and is willing to trample the civil rights of individuals. What use are more stringent laws against terror if the take away the liberties they are ostensibly supposed to protect?
Throughout American history, there have been many examples of times where fears during wartime resulted in a curtailment of national liberties, including during the McCarthyism of the Cold War in which people with left-leaning sympathies were targeted as potential ‘communists.’ However, the Patriot Act actually enshrined into law certain provisions which seem at odds with basic constitutional liberties, including prosecuting librarians who reveal that the government has subpoenaed library records; searching and seizing without probable cause when an investigation is related to a terrorist treat; and jailing an accused person indefinitely if they are accused of terrorist acts (The Patriot Act in a nutshell, Associated Press).
The Act also allowed persons accused of terrorism to be held without a trial, without the right to confront accusers, and to be held indefinitely without charges. All of these are examples of constitutional violations, critics contend, given that Americans are given the right to free speech under the First Amendment, the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment, and the right to confront their accusers under the Fifth Amendment. As well as to conduct surveillance of a suspect’s home, under the Act the government acquired sweeping powers to acquire personal data from “car rental companies, casinos, Internet hosts like Google, social networking sites like Facebook, and most likely cafes and businesses that offer Wi-Fi access to their customers” (Rose 2011). According to the U.S. Constitution, a person is innocent until proven guilty, while under the tenants of the Act, it would seem that everyone is a potential suspect with no expected right to privacy, even when typing on a computer in the privacy of his or her own home.
Parts of the Patriot Act have already been ruled unconstitutional. In 2007, a Muslim convert and attorney named Brandon Mayfield was subjected to warrantless surveillance of his house and searches of his home and office after a fingerprint was misread and “he was mistakenly linked by the FBI to the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people in 2004” (Judge rules part of the Patriot Act unconstitutional, 2007, NBC.). The judge found that the Patriot Act, “now permits the executive branch of government to conduct surveillance and searches of American citizens without satisfying the probable cause requirements of the Fourth Amendment” and thus as unconstitutional (Judge rules part of the Patriot Act unconstitutional, 2007, NBC.). However, despite this ruling, under the Act, “delayed notice search warrants, or ‘sneak-and-peak’ warrant” still allow government investigators “to enter an individual’s business or dwelling to obtain limited and specific information for an investigation and notifying the individual of the search at a later date” (Reform the Patriot Act, 2011, ACLU).
Defenders of the Act, of course, would counter that because there have been no attacks on U.S. soil of the magnitude of 9/11 then the Act must be ‘doing something’ to improve the safety of ordinary Americans. However, once again there is no clear evidence to support this assertion. What is clear is that “expanding the government’s surveillance powers in foreign intelligence investigations allows the government to do much more than “track spies and terrorists” but also allows them to track many other people, including Americans and others not suspected of involvement in terrorism or crime at all” (Reform the Patriot Act, 2011, ACLU). Many civil liberties groups allege that the provisions of the Act have actually led to more petty drug arrests rather than a meaningful improvement in widespread safety. Even the claim that the Act was necessary to increase sharing between intelligence agencies is questionable: “information sharing between criminal and intelligence investigations occurred before 9/11 and the Patriot Act [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] FISA information, properly obtained for foreign intelligence purposes, could always be shared with criminal investigators if relevant to crime” (Reform the Patriot Act, 2011, ACLU).
The question that must be asked, therefore, is not if America is safer than pre-2001, but if the specific provisions of the Patriot Act have made us safer. There is evidence that the government has greater ability to engage in constant surveillance of ordinary Americans. This is constitutionally questionable and also expensive and not necessarily the best use of scarce financial resources. Rather, keeping track of library books and web searches seems more likely to find ‘false positives’ than genuine terror threats.
Judge rules part of the Patriot Act unconstitutional. (2007). NBC. Retrieved from:
The Patriot Act in a nutshell. Associated Press Retrieved from:
Reform the Patriot Act. (2011). ACLU. Retrieved from:
Rose, C. (2011). Ten years of the Patriot Act. Boston.com. Retrieved from:
The U.S. Patriot Act. (2014). Department of Justice. Retrieved from:
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