Invasion of the PATRIOT Act

Jonathan Callas

Below you will find expert Jonathan Callas' response to questions about how the PATRIOT Act affects individual security and civil liberties. This article is one of a group of expert answers to questions on this legislation.

Are the intercept provisions of the Cyber Security Enhancement Act and the surveillance provisions of the PATRIOT Act clear violations of privacy? Why, yes, they are. No question about it.

Let's put some things in perspective. Western society is under threat from terrorists. There's no question about that, either.

The real issue is how to address that threat. There are two properties we want such a solution to have. We want it to be effective, and we want it to preserve our society.

Analysis of the September 11 attacks has shown that we had information and clues that we simply didn't put together. Some of this is hindsight, and some is not going to happen that way again. We know that there are bad people out there. If (as is alleged at times) a certain judge was reticent to give a certain type of warrant, that's less likely to happen now than two years ago. Our main issue is analyzing information more than collecting it. Any time you have problems in timely analysis, the problem is not helped by collecting more data.

The real problem, however, is the baby, not the bath water. The PATRIOT Act is a huge expansion in potentially abusive government powers, and about the only

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good thing about it is that it came with a time limit.

The biggest danger to our society in this whole mess is knowing when we can stand down. In a real war, you know who the enemy is, and when they are defeated. How do we know now we've won (which I have every confidence we will)? If we have to wait until the last evil person is imprisoned or dead, we'll be waiting a long, long time.

Expanded government powers tend to be used reasonably by the people who put them in place. They understand the dangers in them. However, as time goes on, the temptation to use those powers in new ways becomes greater and greater. As an example, the RICO laws have been used for things that are not racketeering by any means, and the government has been slapped for that, too.

The dangers in the PATRIOT Act are that it will be renewed once it is supposed to expire, and it will then not be used against foreign terrorists, but domestic ones -- most importantly, people in the opposition party. I say "opposition party" because history tells us that it will be misused by the people after the ones who put the expanded powers in place.

For example, the expanded powers in the Special Prosecutor laws were allowed to expire only after they created a morass that everyone could agree was a national embarrassment. We can hope that we have the strength to let the PATRIOT Act expire or throw it out before it becomes a cautionary tale for future generations.

So to sum up -- yes, it's an invasion of privacy, and I'm not sure that trying to improve it by putting in time limits, notifications and so on is in anyone's interest. The worst of all outcomes would be emergency powers that can't help a real emergency, abuses innocent people and stays around forever.

Read the other expert responses:
  • Ed Tittel: Contemplating the PATRIOT Act
  • Kevin Beaver: The USA PATRIOT Act: Increasing the size of government
  • Sondra Schneider: Cooperating with law enforcement for U.S. security
  • Ed Yakabovicz: When there's too much security
  • Stephen Mencik: The Patriot Act and Carnivore: Reasons for concern?

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