What the Patriot Act means to you and me

What the Patriot Act means to you and me

by Alice Graves, December 2009

The U.S.A. Patriot Act is an acronym for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism." The 320-page act was passed only days after the September 11th attacks. This incredibly short timeframe alone has raised numerous eyebrows. Since the passing of the Patriot Act, over 150 communities denounced it as an attack on civil liberties.

The most infamous part of the act, in terms of generating protest and lawsuits, has been Section 215, which allows for the scrutiny of "any tangible thing." The problem here is that "thing" includes everything - books, records, papers, and documents can all be searched.

It means the government now has the right to march into your local public library and demand a list of everyone who checked out Al Franken's latest book or books on Islam or books on making explosives. Or it could target you for some reason. What books have you borrowed from the library recently? Silent Spring? 1984? The Birkenstock catalog?

As of right now, WashingtonD.C. is the only place where a public library is required to notify a patron if he or she is under investigation. The American Library Association advises librarians faced with court orders to immediately notify the library attorney but not the particular patron.

Tracking your library card records aren't the extent of Section 215. The FBI now has the right to obtain medical and financial records, monitor email, and tap your phone, all without probable cause.

The Patriot Act can override probable cause. The FBI only needs to tell a judge that the search protects the country against terrorism. Needless to say, this is a broad and vague definition

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom from unnecessary search and seizure. That means if the police want to search your home, they need to show a judge "probable cause" in order to get a search warrant. Probable cause means the police have to build a reasonable case before they can invade your privacy.

The Patriot Act overrides probable cause. The FBI only needs to tell a judge that the search protects the country against terrorism. Needless to say, this is a broad and vague definition. More specific terms aren't needed anyway since the judge cannot deny the application. What the Department of Justice calls "seeking a court order" is now merely getting a rubber stamp.

The person being searched doesn't even have to be a terrorist suspect, as long as the investigation "protects against terrorism." And the scope of terrorism has been broadened to include domestic terrorism. This could potentially be used against Americans speaking out against policies they don't agree with. Writing an anti-Bush letter to the editor could make you a suspect.

In addition, you don't even have to be the subject of the investigation. It could be an old friend from college who you haven't seen in twenty years. Or your best friend's brother-in-law, who you met once at a family wedding. Or your dry cleaner. The vaguest connection is suspect.

George Orwell's 1984 underestimated the year Big Brother would have the technology to invade everyone's privacy. And Orwell never dreamed how fast and easy it would be. There's no need for loudspeakers or unsightly video cameras. In fact, you probably won't even know your every word and move is being scrutinized. Thanks to the Patriot Act, Orwell could have called his book 2004.