Understanding the Origins and Impact of the Patriot Act: From September 11th to the Modern Day
National security is one of the most essential concerns for any society or state, and arguably the most essential concern for any nation in the modern era that is marked both by non-government-affiliated aggressors as well as many disputed borders and territories that lead to intergovernmental conflicts. If national security is breached in any meaningful fashion, then all of the other responsibilities and efforts of a given government or state will become essentially worthless, as they will be under direct and imminent threat from whatever force is threatening the security of the state as a whole. In addition, protecting the very lives of its citizens must be seen as an essential goal for any government, as even the most rudimentary political philosophies have established that the government exists for the better protection and prosperity of those individuals that have implicitly consented to the establishment of that government.
At the same time, there are many civil liberties that are assumed to be natural rights for all human beings that could potentially be eroded or eradicated by stringent national security efforts. If certain speech is labeled dangerous, for example, governments can begin to limit the ideas that can be expressed and exchanged in a given society, and this creates a slippery slope where speech that is questionable in its threat yet is displeasing to the government might also begin to incur legal and official sanctions and punishment. Governments thus have a careful balancing act to perform between national security and civil liberties.
This paper will examine one particular instance of a national security effort that has led to certain civil liberties issues, with people forming opinions on both sides of the issue and arguments that are still ongoing. Specifically, the United States Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, better known by its acronym the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, will be examined as a law enforcement and national security-enhancing tool, while its status as a perceived and potentially real threat to civil liberties will also be examined. The origins of this piece of legislation, which was passed only a few short weeks after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center of September 11th, 2001, will also be explored, and the future of this Act and its provisions will be discussed. Through and analysis of this legislation, the balancing act that governments and law enforcement bodies must deal with on a general and daily basis will be better understood and illuminated for the reader.
The Patriot Act and Justice
Exactly what the Patriot Act consists of is a matter of some debate. The Justice Department claims that the Act only expands the use of certain powers and tools already at the disposal of federal law enforcement agencies and officers to the detection and obstruction of terrorism, while other individuals and groups like the ACLU see the Act as a broad expansion of police powers to intrude on privacy and infringe upon otherwise protected rights (Justice 0211; ACLU 2011). Obviously, then, whether or not the Act is just is a matter of debate.
An earlier 1996 law that many claim is the primary basis for the Patriot Act's provisions made it a criminal offense to provide support or "advice" to terrorists or terrorist groups, enabled the use of secret evidence against terrorism suspects in investigations and trials, and allowed various government departments and officials to label "terrorists" as they saw fit, within certain broad parameters (DTN 2010). The Patriot Act essentially extended these provisions, and also added other broad powers such as allowing wire tap warrants to be issued without either a person or facility being identified, and allowing for the surveillance of foreign individuals through the obtaining of secret warrants (ACLU 2011). The lack of definition and purposeful breadth of discretion that these laws provide have been the primary cause for outcry against the legislation as an erosion of civil liberties, causing many to see it as the foundations for a police state that controls instead of merely protecting its citizens.
No other date can be written so simply and so meaningfully, in the United States at the very least, than the above numeric representation of September 11th. The atmosphere of apprehension, uncertainty, and outright fear that was created by what was the largest attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor was what led, in part, to the overwhelming support for the Patriot Act in the U.S. Congress. It was clear that national security needed beefing up, and that extra vigilance and stringency was needed in the legislation that supported security and surveillance efforts, so in some sense the changes that were wrought were fairly positive.
At the same time, though fear can lead to healthy results it is not really a positive emotion, and it is not really conducive to calm and rational thinking. Though the changes that increased security capabilities and the powers that law enforcement officers and agencies could claim and put to use were generally seen as positive by these agencies and officers, public reaction to these changes was definitely mixed. Violence against innocent Americans that were rightly or wrongly identified as Muslim and/or Arab occurred at one extreme, while calls for peace and a complete lack of military response to the 9/11 attacks were heard on the other. It is also almost certain that the level of change in national sentiment and legislative perspective apparent in the months following the terrorist attacks would not have occurred without the attacks having occurred, and this has fueled the argument that the laws are unjust as it is easy to point to them as a fear-based reaction rather than a reasoned and well-structured piece of security legislation (ACLU 2011; DTN 2010).
Since the first passage of the Patriot Act almost a decade ago, certain of its provisions have been set to expire and have often been passed into continuance by further votes in the U.S. Congress (ACLU 2011; Justice 2011; DTN 2010). This does not mean that the Act has not faced certain challenges, however, and in fact both legislators and enforcement officers and agencies have been prevailed upon to address the civil liberties issues seen as having arisen from the Act's passage (ACLU 2011). So far, these challenges have been largely over-ridden.
The most effective manner for how the Patriot Act and its proponents should handle the challenges that have been presented really depends upon how one feels about the specific provisions that are a part of the Act. So far, the atmosphere of fear that perpetuates the need for a strong stance on national security has been an effective means of overcoming any challenges that have been raised as to the legitimacy and the advisability of any provisions of the Patriot Act (ACLU 2011). It would not be a bad idea for the proponents of the majority of the Act's provisions and protections to attempt to make the legislation and its effects more palatable to other sensibilities, however, and doing this would involve the relatively simple task of increasing the transparency with which many of the Act's provisions are carried out. This simple move would not do much to limit the security enhancements of the Patriot Act, but would restore many of the civil liberties that are seen as being trampled by the Act, and would also make a redress of grievances brought about by such abuses of civil liberties something that could be more realistically achieved.
As was stated above, the Patriot Act has been extended piecemeal several times during the decade of its existence, as Congress continually votes to extend various provisions…