The USA Patriot Act of 2001
The USA Patriot Act of 2001 was a controversial law passed by the Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush about 45 days after the 9/11 terror attack on the World Trade Center in New York City (Kenny 1). The law was a ten-letter acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. Therefore, one of the tools that the government wanted to intercept and obstruct terrorism was data concerning terrorists and their affiliate organizations (Beaudette 26). The government wanted vital information including sources of funding, activities and plans that would lead to the arrest and detention of terrorists before they conduct further attacks in the United States. What became controversial about the law were the unreasonable searches and seizures that were conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) following the enactment of the law (Beaudette 26). Again, the law infringed on the freedom of expression because the national security letters (NSL) did not allow the recipients to discuss or report the type of information they have given the FBI. According to Nicholas Merrill, the government took the precaution to protect evidence or the information they received from the recipients of the NSL.
The National Security Letters (NSL)
In a bid to obtain the required data, the law allowed the FBI agents to write their own search warrants without involving the courts and distribute such orders to the targeted individuals or organizations (Merrill, n.pag). The search warrants, known as the National Security Letters (NSL), directly violated the provisions of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees Americans the right to remain secure in their persons, homes, business premises, papers and workstations (Beaudette 28). The NSL also infringed on the freedom of expression that allows Americans to freely discuss their opinions or ordeals with family members or the media.
Political Parties and their Stances
The political parties that supported the law include Democrats, Republicans and the Working Families. The Democrats and Republicans supported the law because they thought it would enhance the preparedness of the government against terrorist attacks (Merrill, n.pag). The majority in both Senate and the House of Representatives supported the law. The lawmakers based their support on the rising incidents of terror, which they believed endangered the lives of Americans. However, the law did not gain the support of the Green Party, Libertarians, Socialists and the Constitution Party. In their dissenting arguments, the parties cited gross violations of the Fourth and First Amendments provisions (Beaudette 31). For example, the national security letters allowed the FBI agents to infringe on the privacy of American citizens. The law also allowed the government to monitor people’s activities over the internet, which amounts to a breach of privacy. Apart from violating the Fourth Amendment, the NSL prohibited people from discussing or reporting contents of the data they have provided to the FBI to the media organizations (Merrill, n.pag). The law wanted people to remain silent even if their rights had been violated. Therefore, the dissenting parties cited constitutional breach as one of the reasons they did not want the Congress to pass the Patriot Act.
Impact on Political Parties
The issue did not have significant impact on either success or failure of the political parties. Moreover, the dissenting parties do not command a majority of the voters in the United States (Kenny 2). In other words, the impact would have been significant if democrats and the republicans differed on the issue. According to Beaudette, the impact of legislations such as the Patriot Act on the political parties may be felt if the issues are included on the ballot (31). For example, the issue of marijuana has seen some hardliner parties losing popularity in states where people wants the product legalized. In most cases, the popularity of a political party declines due to hardline positions on issues that are detrimental to human rights or freedoms.
The Perception of the Patriot Act
Perhaps, Americans would have reacted differently if the zeitgeist of the time was different. At the time the law was passed by the Congress, Americans were worried about their safety and security in the presence of terrorism (Merrill, n.pag). They wanted both state and federal government to develop policies that would enhance their safety. Many people could not understand why security agencies at the airports did not detect some of the weapons that were used by terrorists to hijack the three aircrafts. It was also difficult for the Americans to understand why the security agencies failed to intercept telephone or email conversations among terrorists to detect their plans and stop them before killing so many people (Beaudette 26). Americans were also concerned about the roles of intelligence agencies in identifying suspicious activities, conducting investigations and preventing terrorism. A few days after the vicious attack on the World Trade Center, the government did not have answers to many questions Americans were asking but promised to do everything within its powers to end terrorism and enhance security.
The Impact on Civil Liberties
Therefore, when the Congress passed the Patriot Act, Americans perceived it as an attempt by the government to seal various loopholes in the laws regarding security. Remember that terrorists managed to smuggle weapons such as knives without a slight detection from the security agencies at the airport. Perhaps, the existing policies regarding screening did not demand for the physical examination of luggage to determine if there are carefully concealed weapons such as knives. Again, the Fourth Amendment barred the security agencies from tapping into calls or intercepting email conversations to determine if the contents pose a threat to national security (Merrill, n.pag). The Fourth Amendment also barred security agencies from conducting random searches at home or business premises to obtain useful information or evidence needed to solve security puzzles. In other words, there was a need to change policies in a bid to give the government more powers to conduct investigations and combat crime. Thus, many Americans did not perceive the Patriot Act as an attempt by the government to invade their privacy or deny them freedom of expression as provided in the First Amendment. Instead, many people applauded the efforts made by the Congress to enhance national security. However, if the Congress passed the law at a time when America was not facing any imminent threat, many people would have opposed the policy.
The Future of Civil Liberties
The issue was a significant setback in defining the US liberty for the future. Americans had reached a point where their telephone conversations and private messages were secure and protected from any form of invasion either by state agencies or private citizens. The Fourth Amendment assured Americans that they would be secure in their homes, persons and even business premises. The constitution demanded that the security agencies would seek permission before conducting a search on persons, emails, papers, domestic residence or commercial property (Merrill, n.pag). Moreover, Americans were also free to express their opinions regarding issues that were pertinent to their lives. However, the law had significant limitations on the freedom of speech because the national security letters did not allow the recipients to disclose any information they have given to the security agencies. Even if the recipients were forced or tortured to give the information, they were not allowed to discuss their ordeal with the media, friends or family members (Merrill, n.pag). Moreover, the national security letters gave security agencies the permission to conduct searches without warrants from the courts. In other words, the law set a dangerous precedence towards the ability of Americans to enjoy liberty in the future. The law was a significant threat to the sustainability of hard-earned freedoms such as the freedom of speech as well as the right to privacy. Even if the law had good intentions, there was no guarantee that security agencies would not use it to achieve ulterior motives.
The Importance of Discussing the Law
If not discussed under First Amendment, many people may not understand how the law is likely to affect their freedom of speech as well as the right to petition. As guaranteed in the First Amendment, Americans are free to assemble, worship, petition or express themselves without unnecessary restrictions (Kenny 2). When the law was passed, many Americans thought it would only interfere with the rights to privacy. The media also placed more focus on the right to privacy than the freedom of expression. A closer examination of the national security letters revealed that even the freedom of speech was at risk. Therefore, what Americans needed to understand was how to engage the government to restore the freedom without interfering with their mission to fight terrorism. The government should eliminate the secrecy surrounding the search warrants so that people understands they type of information or evidence they are required to give to the FBI agents or police officers. The government should not be the one defying the constitution while expecting American citizens to follow the same laws being violated with a sense of impunity.
Status of the Patriot Act
Although Americans have raised concerns about the Patriot Act, very little is known about its status. People believe that the Congress removed most of the controversial clauses but there is no evidence to prove that the law has become ineffective. The government has surrounded the application of the Patriot Act with secrets to prevent people from protesting or refusing to cooperate with the security agencies. The Act was passed by the Congress following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in the New York City. The primary intention of the government was to use the law to legalize unwarranted searches and seizures on individuals, residences or commercial properties. To protect the evidence obtained from searches and seizures, the government did not allow the recipients of the national security letters to disclose the information they gave to the public. Several political parties including the Republicans and Democrats supported the act while others like the Green Party failed to give their support citing gross violations of the constitutional amendments. The paper finds the act in serious breach of the provisions of both First and Fourth Amendments of the constitution. Moreover, the application of the law may have detrimental consequences on the future of civil liberties in the United States.
Beaudette, Peter, Jr. "Compliance without Credit: The National Security Agency and the International Right to Privacy." Air Force Law Review, 2015, p. 25-35.
Kenny, Jack. "Patriot Act's Secret Probes Raise Hackles of Booksellers." New Hampshire Business Review, vol. 25, no. 13, 27 June 2003, p.1-10.
Merrill, Nicholas. "How The Patriot Act Stripped Me Of My Free-Speech Rights". Washington Post, 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-the-patriot-act-stripped-me-of-my-free-speech-rights/2011/10/20/gIQAXB53GM_story.html?utm_term=.be9d1051ef5d. Accessed 1 Apr 2018.