USA Patriot Act weakens checks and balances

When President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act into law in early-November, he significantly boosted the government's law enforcement powers while continuing a trend to cut back on the checks and balances that Americans have traditionally relied on to protect individual liberty. From legal analysts with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the following summary highlights the new law's potential impact on individuals and groups.

"This law is based on the faulty assumption that safety must come at the expense of civil liberties," said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU's Washington National Office. "The USA Patriot Act gives law enforcement agencies nationwide extraordinary new powers unchecked by meaningful judicial review."

"For immigrants," added Gregory T. Nojeim, Associate Director of the ACLU Washington Office, "the law is a dramatic setback that gives the government the authority to detain - indefinitely in some cases - non-citizens who are not terrorists on the basis of vague allegations of a risk to national security."

Among the USA Patriot Act's most troubling provisions, the ACLU insists, are measures that:

  • Allow for indefinite detention of non-citizens who are not terrorists on minor visa violations if they cannot be deported because they are stateless, their country of origin refuses to accept them or because they would face torture in their country of origin.
  • Minimize judicial supervision of federal telephone and Internet surveillance by law enforcement authorities.
  • Expand the ability of the government to conduct secret searches.
  • Give the Attorney General and the Secretary of State the power to designate domestic groups as terrorist organizations and deport any non-citizen who belongs to them.
  • Grant the FBI broad access to sensitive business records about individuals without having to show evidence of a crime.
  • Lead to large-scale investigations of American citizens for "intelligence" purposes.
    For drug war prisoners and others interested in the criminal justice implications of the Patriot Act, ACLU analysts say "the law dramatically expands the use of secret searches. Normally, a person is notified when law enforcement conducts a search. In some cases regarding searches for electronic information, law enforcement authorities can get court permission to delay notification of a search. The USA Patriot Act extends the authority of the government to request "secret searches" to every criminal case. This vast expansion of power goes far beyond anything necessary to conduct terrorism investigations.

The Act also allows for the broad sharing of sensitive information in criminal cases with intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the NSA, the INS and the Secret Service. It permits sharing of sensitive grand jury and wiretap information without judicial review or any safeguards regarding the future use or dissemination of such information.

These information-sharing authorizations and mandates effectively put the CIA back in the business of spying on Americans. Once the CIA makes clear the kind of information it seeks, law enforcement agencies can use tools like wiretaps and intelligence searches to provide data to the CIA. In fact, the law specifically gives the Director of Central Intelligence - who heads the CIA - the power to identify domestic intelligence requirements.

The law also creates a new crime of "domestic terrorism." The new offense threatens to transform protestors into terrorists if they engage in conduct that "involves acts dangerous to human life." Members of Operation Rescue, the Environmental Liberation Front and Greenpeace, for example, have all engaged in activities that could subject them to prosecution as terrorists. Then, under this law, the dominos begin to fall. Those who provide lodging or other assistance to these "domestic terrorists" could have their homes wiretapped and could be prosecuted."

Source: The American Civil Liberties Union, November 2001