Losing Our Liberty in the Name of Fighting Terrorism

August 6, 2003

By Tom DeWeese

America may have reached a turning point on July 22, 2003 in the battle to restore and protect civil liberties threatened by the Patriot Act. On that day the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to pass two amendments that restore the rule of law by denying the Justice Department the ability to sneak into private homes and peek at private records without a warrant.

The House also unanimously passed an amendment to prohibit the Justice Department from forcing libraries and bookstores to turn over records of books read by their patrons.

These are important victories for the forces of liberty in the battle to keep an all-powerful Big Brother government from invading every aspect of our private lives under the excuse of fighting terrorism.

However, the victory may be short lived because the Bush Administration is applying pressure on Senate leadership to keep the provisions intact. As a result, the Senate may fail to support the amendments in its version of the bill, voiding the House action.

To protect our liberty, Americans must understand the threat posed by the Patriot Act and take action to assure that the Senate also passes the amendments. The fact is, Americans who have blindly trusted the government to protect them from the terrorist threat are not safer. However using that excuse, American liberty is under serious threat from our own government.

No one, after 9-11, can doubt that our nation and our personal safety have been attacked by Islamic fanatics bent on imposing their religion via “jihad” or holy war. Our government has been energized to fight the terrorism that has taken more than 3,000 lives here in America. Unlike previous conflicts, we are not dealing with a nation, but with a shadowy, global movement.

As free Americans, however, we must ask some serious questions. Are the tactics implemented here necessary? Are they effective? Are our liberties protected? Is there a separate agenda being pursued?

We have been told that the grandest weapon created in the war against terrorism is the Patriot Act. Its aim, according to the Justice Department, is to give federal law enforcement agencies the surveillance and investigative tools they need to prevent future terror attacks. Given the failure of agencies such as the FBI and CIA to detect and prevent 9-11 with all the laws and tools at their disposal, is it reasonable to say we need to now ignore the Constitution in order to provide more protection?

The quick, emotional passage of the Patriot Act only weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks allowed little time for scrutiny of its measures. In fact, most members of Congress did not read it before voting. As a result, it deprives Americans of protections that are the very essence of the Constitution.

The Act expands the capability to obtain warrants and conduct searches without disclosing them immediately. Under the Act, law enforcement can gain access to your home and take records without you knowing they were there. A warrant must be obtained, but you may never know about it. This is one of the provisions the House is now trying to repeal.

The Patriot Act changes the definition of terrorism, allowing even legitimate protestors, such as pro-life activists, to be at risk of being labeled “terrorists” if violence erupts at their events.

Coming in October is a new provision of the Act that requires fuller identification of bank customers. In the year before 9-11 more than 150,000 Americans protested these very provisions in a scheme by the FDIC called “Know Your Customer.” Americans said those provisions were too invasive of their privacy, but now, special software will help firms in 25 finance-related industries to compare millions of customer records with thousands of entries on federal blacklists. Businesses such as car dealers, insurance companies, investment brokers, lenders and real estate firms will be required to file “Suspicious Activity Reports” to the Treasury Department.

Massive government data banks, camera surveillance, and national ID cards are just the tip of the iceberg of the schemes being cooked up behind closed doors in Washington. Left unanswered is whether government is protecting us from terrorists or is government using 9-11 as a pretext to establish a massive system of government control over our lives?

In February 2003 it was discovered that the Department of Justice was drafting legislation to radically expand the reach of the federal government into the lives of every American citizen. The official title of the document is the “Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003.” It’s been given the nickname, Patriot Act #2. The bill has not yet been introduced in Congress, and reportedly only a very few key government leaders including Vice President Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert have reviewed it.

It is suspected that the delay in officially offering the bill to Congress is a direct result of public attacks on the bill by privacy advocates, and it is feared that the Justice Department would get very bold in rushing it through should another terrorist attack occur.

Here are just a few of the more frightening provisions of Patriot Act #2. By definition any American citizen could be arbitrarily designated a terrorist. Section 101 of this act will officially give the executive branch the power to declare any American a “foreign power” and therefore not a citizen. These newly created “foreign powers” are exempt from the protections of the Constitution.

It is important to note that most of the surveillance provisions in the act are not restricted to terrorism, but to any kind of criminal investigation. Section 501 expands the ability of the federal government to designate American citizens as “enemy combatants.”

Section 102 makes “collecting intelligence” a terrorist crime, “regardless of whether it is illegal” (according to a Department of Justice analysis). This can be interpreted to mean that reading foreign newspapers online and saving them to your hard drive is a terrorist act.

Sections 103 and 122 give the executive branch the power to engage in electronic surveillance of Americans without a court order for up to 15 days, whenever the US is under a state of emergency. For the record, the United States has been under a continuous state of emergency since Franklin Roosevelt declared it during World War II. Every president since then has signed executive orders to continue it. Section 106 exempts federal agents from liability for engaging in surveillance of suspects without a court order.

Section 110 removes the “sunset” provisions on some surveillance clauses in the first Patriot Act. Those “sunset” provisions were the guarantees that initially built support in Congress to pass the Patriot Act. Americans were assured that the issue was fighting terrorism and when that battle was over we would then restore any liberties that had been trampled on.

Government almost never gives back power.

Section 123 expands the time limits on wiretaps and gives judges less power to demand progress reports on wiretaps. Section 126 gives federal agents the power to secretly obtain credit reports and other consumer information. This destroys the firewall between private sector and government information collection and lays the groundwork for another invasive government snoop called Total Information Awareness.

Section 313 lifts civil liability from businesses that report “suspected terrorists” to the federal government, no matter how illegitimate or malicious the tip is. It means you lose the right to sue if someone falsely accuses you, ruins your reputation, costs you your job or your family or your freedom. This lays the groundwork for one of the most insidious ideas yet to come out of this government – TIPS – a Gestapo for squealers and busybodies to turn in their neighbor. Just hope nobody hates you that much.

This bill amounts to little more than an unofficial declaration of martial law. It is just short of repeal of the writ of Habeas Corpus, the very root of the rule of law that grants all Americans the protections of the American justice system.

Both Attorney General Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Ridge have expressed support for repeal of the Posse Comitatus law that bans the merger of civilian police forces with the U.S. military. That means instead of having your home raided by the local S.W.A.T. team, you may expect a visit from the 101st Airborne.

We are told that there is a delicate balance between liberty and security and that we just have to make sacrifices to be safe. What they are asking us to sacrifice are the very foundations of our liberty.

We are not being protected. We are being wrapped in a cocoon of tyranny. All of the signs are there. We are witnessing the erosion of American liberty in the name of fighting the most primitive force on earth. Americans, however, must ask themselves who is invading their lives more, the government or the terrorists? Who is the greater long-term threat?

John Adams said it best when he wrote, “A constitution of government, once changed from freedom, can never be restored; liberty, once lost, is lost forever.” Adams and all of the founders are watching us now and they know one truth that we must all relearn very quickly. The only way to make sure that government doesn’t abuse its power is to not grant power in the first place.

That’s why the U.S. Senate now must follow the lead of the House and begin to repeal the worst offenses in the Patriot Act.

Tom DeWeese
[email protected]

Tom DeWeese is one of the nation’s leading advocates of individual liberty, free enterprise, private property rights, personal privacy, back-to-basics education and American sovereignty and independence.