Friday, July 22, 2005

House Votes to Extend Patriot Act

Yesterday's vote by the House of Representatives to reauthorize the unconstitutional Patriot Act and to make 14 out of the 16 disputed provisions permanent did not merit above-the-fold coverage in the nation's three major papers: the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. The Boston Globe gave the news below-the-fold placement, too.

The two sections of this disgraceful law that the House did not approve in perpetuity will sunset in 10 years. Those two sections are Section 206, allowing the government to use roving wiretaps (targeted at a person, not a specific phone); and Section 215, allowing the government to seize business, financial, medical, bookstore, and library records without having to get a court order and without the requirement to show probable cause.

Ten years means you are not secure from unreasonable search and seizure without probable cause until July 2015. A decade. As John Conyers said, "Ten years is not a sunset; 10 years is semipermanent."

That Conyers, he's such an extremist. You talk to James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) now. Sensenbrenner chairs the House Judiciary Committee, and he wrote most of the Patriot Act. He doesn't think sunset provisions are needed at all, "in the absence of evidence that the government had abused its new powers and when Congress was performing vigorous oversight."

Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) agreed, noting that when the legislation was proposed four years ago, he had insisted on limiting the life of the 16 sections to ensure "the civil liberties of the American people."

He said he would still demand limits "if we had seen failure, if we had seen violations of civil liberties" — but he emphasized that no such failures or violations had occurred.

Why do we even need a Bill of Rights or a Constitution, then? Let's suspend disbelief for a moment and pretend it's really true that no one's civil liberties have actually been violated by the Patriot Act. If it's okay to give our government the power to ban our speech and try us in secret courts and search our homes and personal records without a warrant or probable cause and arrest us without having to give us a reason or letting us see an attorney, as long as they don't actually do it -- and we can trust them to not actually do it -- then what is the purpose of guaranteeing these rights?

But as it happens, it isn't true that no violations of civil liberties have occurred. What follows was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on May 2, 2003.

Several weeks ago, my roommate Asher and I went to an Indian restaurant just off Times Square in the heart of midtown Manhattan. We helped ourselves to the buffet and sat down to begin eating.

Suddenly there was a terrible commotion and five police officers in bulletproof vests stormed down the stairs. They had their guns drawn and were pointing them indiscriminately at the restaurant staff and at us.

"Go to the back of the restaurant," they yelled. I hesitated, lost in my own panic. "Did you not hear me? Go to the back and sit down," they demanded. I complied and looked around at the other patrons. There were eight men including the waiter, all of South Asian descent and ranging from late teens to senior citizen. One of the officers pointed his gun in the waiter's face and shouted: "Is there anyone else in the restaurant?" The waiter, terrified, gestured to the kitchen.

The police placed their fingers on the triggers of their guns and kicked open the kitchen doors. Shouts emanated from the kitchen and a few seconds later five Latino men crawled out on their hands and knees, guns pointed at them.

After patting us all down, the five officers seated us at two tables. As they continued to kick open doors to closets and restrooms with their fingers glued to their triggers, officials in business suits emerged from the stairwell. Two walked over to our table and identified themselves as agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Homeland Security Department.

Having some limited knowledge of the rights afforded to U.S. citizens, I asked why we were being held. The INS agent said we would be released once they confirmed that there were no outstanding warrants against us and our immigration status was OK.

In pre-9/11 America, the legality of this would have been questionable. After all, the 4th Amendment states: "The right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. "

"You have no right to hold us," said Asher. But they explained that they did: This was a homeland security investigation under the authority of the Patriot Act.

The Patriot Act was passed into law on Oct. 26, 2001, in order to facilitate the post-9/11 crackdown on terrorism. Among the unprecedented rights it grants to the federal government are the right to wiretap or detain without a warrant. As I quickly discovered, the right to an attorney has been fudged as well. When I asked to speak to a lawyer, the INS official told me I did have the right to a lawyer but I would have to be taken to the station for security clearance before being granted one. When I asked how long that would take, he replied with a coy smile: "Maybe a day, maybe a week, maybe a month."

We insisted that we had every right to leave and were going to do so. One of the police officers, with his hand on his gun, taunted: "Go ahead and leave, just go ahead." We remained seated.

Our IDs were taken. I was questioned why my license was from out of state and asked whether I had "something to hide." The police continued to hassle the kitchen workers, demanding licenses and dates of birth. One of the kitchen workers was shaking and kept providing the day's date — March 20, 2003 — over and over.

As I continued to press for legal counsel, a female officer put her finger in my face. "We are at war, we are at war and this is for your safety," she exclaimed. As she walked away from the table, she continued to repeat it to herself. "We are at war, we are at war; how can they not understand this?"

I most certainly understand that we are at war, and that we need some measure of security in times like these. But I also understand that the freedoms in the Constitution were meant specifically for times like these.

After an hour and a half, the INS agent returned our licenses. An officer escorted us out. Before we left, the INS agent apologized.

Among the customers, there were four taxi drivers, two students, one newspaper salesman. Several said they were U.S. citizens. I doubt they received apologies. Nor have the hundreds of immigrants being held without charge. Apparently, this type of treatment is acceptable.

Three days after the incident, I phoned the restaurant. The owner was nervous, embarrassed and did not want to talk about it. But I managed to ascertain that the whole thing had been one giant mistake.

A mistake. Loaded guns pointed in faces, people made to crawl, police officers kicking in doors, taunting, keeping their fingers on the trigger even after the situation was under control. A mistake.

And, according to the ACLU, a perfectly legal one, thanks to the Patriot Act.

How many times has the above scenario occurred when one of the victims was not a middle-class, white American who had been raised to believe that he had rights? I'm sure it's happened hundreds of times, at least, to immigrants who might not have the assertiveness to speak up or protest, or the ability to write an article for a major paper about the experience. If Halperin had not happened to be in that restaurant eating dinner with a friend, it's highly unlikely anyone would have heard anything about this event.

But we don't even need incidents as egregious as what happened to Halperin to know that everyone's civil liberties are violated by the sweeping powers the government now has to snoop into people's private lives, to seize their personal records, to break into their homes and conduct warrantless searches, to tell librarians and bookstore employees and doctors and employers and Internet providers that they are forbidden to tell patients or employees or customers about the seizure of their personal records, to examine your most private and intimate belongings in your own home and never tell you they've done it. Just by the fact of this law's existence, and the things it allows the government to do -- to Americans and non-Americans alike -- the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment have been abrogated. They don't exist anymore, because the protections and rights they guarantee don't exist anymore. That's a fact. The FBI, the Justice Department, or the INS may not have decided yet to use the powers they now have to seize your records or search your home or gag your speech. But that does not mean your personal freedoms have not been violated. They just haven't gotten to you yet. But they can, at any time. And that means your constitutionally protected rights and liberties are gone.

I don't know about anyone else, but knowing this does not make me feel safer. It does not make me feel that my government is protecting me. Quite the contrary: It makes me feel that danger now comes from two directions: terrorists, and my government.

No comments: