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Patriot Act 101 By: Jon Thibault
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, April 01, 2004


The USA Patriot Act has consistently been derided by the Left since President Bush signed it into law on October 26, 2001. Given all the hubbub, it is surprising how little is known about its content. The majority of the Act amends and broadens several other statutes, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), the Federal Reserve Act and Title 18 of the United States Code. The Patriot Act is largely incomprehensible to most readers because, for obvious reasons, it does not include the original legislation it revises. A typical section looks like this:

Section 5341(b) of title 31, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following:

'(12) DATA REGARDING FUNDING OF TERRORISM- Data concerning money laundering efforts related to the funding of acts of international terrorism, and efforts directed at the prevention, detection, and prosecution of such funding.'

Owing to its complexity, there is a plethora of misinformation and hysteria surrounding the Patriot Act, particularly by Democrats who fear their civil liberties are being stripped away by evil Republicans. The problem is, the House passed it with a vote of 357-66, and it flew through the Senate with a vote of 98 to 1. Either both Republicans and Democrats suddenly stopped caring about civil liberties, or the bill isn’t all that bad.

Much has been made, for example, of Section 216, which modifies the definitions of "pen register" and "trap and trace device" in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. A pen register is a device which records "numbers dialed or otherwise transmitted on the telephone line to which such device is attached." Trap and trace devices record incoming numbers (caller ID is a trap and trace device).

Section 216 changes the terms set forth by the ECPA to include internet communications. It expands the definition of "pen register" to include any "instrument or facility from which a wire or electronic communication is transmitted." Trap and trace devices now can capture "signaling information reasonably likely to identify the source or a wire or electronic communication." The fear is that these expanded definitions will allow the government to monitor and trace URLs, emails, and other internet activity, but these fears are as yet unfounded. The watchdog group Electronic Privacy Information Center says of Section 216, "The full impact of this expansion of coverage is difficult to assess, as the statutory definitions are vague with respect to the types of information that can be captured and are subject to broad interpretations." Then why do liberals assume the worst?

The Patriot Act has made the antiwar, mask-wearing, WTO-hating, riot-at-the-drop-of-a-hat crowd more paranoid than ever. Not in Our Name wrote in one of its typically shrill pamphlets, "Under the Patriot Act, the powers of government have been steadily transferred to the executive branch. Under the Patriot Act, immigrants - especially Arabs, Muslims and South Asians - have been stripped of any rights." One can only guess which powers of government are being transferred to the executive branch. As for their second claim, the legislation doesn’t strip anyone of his rights, citizen or immigrant. In fact, the Act actually bends over backwards to protect the rights of immigrants. Section 102 reads:

(1) Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and Americans from South Asia play a vital role in our Nation and are entitled to nothing less than the full rights of every American.

(2) The acts of violence that have been taken against Arab and Muslim Americans since the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States should be and are condemned by all Americans who value freedom.

(3) The concept of individual responsibility for wrongdoing is sacrosanct in American society, and applies equally to all religious, racial, and ethnic groups.

(4) When American citizens commit acts of violence against those who are, or are perceived to be, of Arab or Muslim descent, they should be punished to the full extent of the law.

(5) Muslim Americans have become so fearful of harassment that many Muslim women are changing the way they dress to avoid becoming targets.

(6) Many Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have acted heroically during the attacks on the United States, including Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-

year-old New Yorker of Pakistani descent, who is believed to have gone to the World Trade Center to offer rescue assistance and is now missing.

Cynical leftists will claim that Section 102 is just lip service added by Congress to avoid appearing anti-Arab, but its existence shows that Congress was well-aware of the sensitivity and scope of the legislation—all the more reason to doubt many Democrats’ feigned shock that the Patriot Act is somehow being abused by the Bush administration. Which brings us to John Kerry.

According to a recent New York Times article by Jim Rutenberg, "Mr. Kerry has proposed revisions to [the Patriot Act]. He agrees it must expedite the pursuit and capture of terrorists but says it must be written with great consideration of civil liberties." Rutenberg leaves it at that. The obvious question is, why did Kerry vote for the Patriot Act if it needed revisions? Maybe, as with the http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/975513/postsIraq War Resolution, he just didn’t understand the crux of the legislation.

Judging from Kerry’s website, he still doesn’t understand it. In a press release, the Kerry camp explains that it isn’t the Patriot Act itself which is problematic, but rather mean old John Ashcroft, who has taken an innocent piece of legislation and used it against thousands of law-abiding Americans:

"But, the real problem with the Patriot Act is not the law, but the abuse of the law. John Ashcroft has used police powers in secret ways and for political purposes - authorized his agents to monitor church meetings and political rallies without any cause and without the need to get approval."

If there is anyone out there who can provide a source for Kerry’s claim that Ashcroft ordered g-men to pose as nuns and infiltrate church meetings, please do so. More likely, Kerry’s is using "church" as a euphemism for "mosque," which most people would agree is where a lot of terrorists hang out. And, given Kerry’s unstoppable mendacity, one can safely assume those "political rallies" looked something like this. In any case, Kerry feels, "You can sum up the problems with the Patriot Act in two words: John Ashcroft." Which is why Kerry wants to weaken it:

"Given these abuses, John Kerry believes it is necessary to scale back several provisions in the Patriot Act and introduce a new law to assure our enhanced security does not come at the expense of our civil liberties, such as more oversight of sneak and peak searches."

Kerry’s argument is patently flawed here. He claims Ashcroft is the problem, not the Patriot Act. If Kerry becomes President and replaces Ashcroft with a kinder, gentler Attorney General (as Kerry has adamantly said he will), then it wouldn’t be necessary to alter the Patriot Act in any way because Ashcroft will no longer have the power to "abuse" it.

In other words, Kerry voted for a piece of legislation which increased the surveillance and investigative powers of the government, but then was shocked when it was actually used by the Justice Department. More likely, as with NAFTA and the war with Iraq, Kerry knew exactly what he was doing, but must now furiously backpedal to comply with the ideology of his leftist constituents.

Perhaps the most common fear among the Left is that the Patriot Act has given the government the right to wantonly look through our library records. As bizarre as it sounds, this is actually cause for concern among liberals who have nothing better to worry about. A Boston Globe article from September of last year stated, "Perhaps nothing in the USA Patriot Act has fed fears of rampant government snooping more than a part of the antiterrorism law allowing federal agents to obtain library and business records." Are library records privileged? Is there an implied librarian-borrower confidentiality that nobody knows about? It’s safe to assume that the average person could care less if the FBI discovers how many times he or she read The Shining, especially if that small sacrifice helps the government learn that a guy named Mohammad has suddenly developed an interest in architecture, airplanes and combustible chemicals.

As it turns out, the fear of having our coveted reading habits exposed is unwarranted. The ACLU made a huge stink about it, claiming that "a survey conducted by the University of Illinois suggested that, by December 2001, the FBI had already approached 85 out of some 1500 libraries." The ACLU sued the Justice Department and demanded the release of information regarding the amount of library records it sought. Imagine their chagrin when the Justice Department released a memorandum showing that law enforcement had not once used the Patriot Act to obtain library records. It’s a good thing, too. The issue had turned into a hot potato for rogue librarians across the nation. Some were reportedly so frazzled by the thought of the Feds kicking down their doors that they destroyed many library records themselves. Apparently, librarians are an excitable bunch who, when pushed to the edge, aren’t afraid to take the law into their own hands. Thank goodness they use their powers for good rather than evil.

Of course, the legislation regarding library records wouldn’t worry normal people. According to the Boston Globe article, "Justice Department officials have long insisted that such warrants are used rarely and only with proper judicial oversight from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees espionage and foreign terrorism cases. This week, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft called complaints about the law ‘baseless hysteria.’" Which pretty much sums up liberals’ attitude toward the Patriot Act as a whole.


Jon Thibault is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles.


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