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Civil Liberty and the U.S. Patriot Act

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    The advent of the War on Terror that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks sparked the beginning of a broad expansion of federal power over civil liberties of the common American. The passage of the U.S. Patriot Act in the wake of the horrors of the 9/11 attack was aimed primarily at ensuring national security, but would come into conflict with the right to privacy and a host of other important civil liberties. This sample research paper outlines the ways in which civil liberty in the United States has been curtailed in a legal manner due to the passing of the Act.

    Civil liberty and the U.S. Patriot Act

    It can be said that civil liberties since September 11, 2001 have changed extensively. An environment of fear has set in due to the various implementations that the government has imposed on the public to keep us protected from another attack. The legal changes that were made following the lethal attacks challenge the fundaments of the United States and the rights individuals living here. This legalized violation of privacy known as the Patriot Act has to ended before the constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties of Americans can prevail.

    Broad powers within the Patriot Act

    In swift sequence, government security and intelligence agents were granted broad powers to lawfully spy on citizens and other individuals  in the United States, without any evidence of a crime. The government is also now able to keep information that had previously been readily available, a secret. Ethnic profiling has been on the rise and the government has, since 9/11, engaged in increasingly more wiretapping and monitoring of people’s internet and phone usage as well as investigation into their personal records.

    These changes came in the form of what is known as the USA Patriot Act in October 2001. The act equipped the executive branch with a plethora of tools to investigate potential acts of terrorism (Stephens; Herman). The first and fourth amendment rights that individuals living in the United States are guaranteed have been undermined to the core because of the government’s approach to keeping us safe.

    The first amendment allows for freedom of religion, press and speech. Individuals can have their opinions and be free to express them. However, after 9/11, these rights have not been exercised or been allowed to be exercised as freely as they once were. It is almost as if anyone practicing a Muslim religion, speaking out on the USA Patriot Act or anything that is deemed controversial regarding 9/11 is punished either by the government or another individual. While the USA Patriot Act’s purpose was to strengthen our overall morale, it has not really done that in reference to our civil liberties. 

    Purpose of the Patriot Act

    The USA Patriot Act’s purpose was to dissuade and castigate terrorist acts in the United States and around the world in an effort to improve law enforcement investigatory tools and other purposes such as subjecting special inspection to foreign jurisdictions, financial institutions and classes of intercontinental transactions as well as preventing the usage of U.S. fiscal systems for personal gain by corruption (“USA Patriot Act”).

    While the act itself sounded reasonable, somewhere along the line a disconnect occurred or rather the government took advantage of the fear in each of us and started abusing the original intent of the act itself.

    In 2005, Congress opted to look at the provisions outlined in the U.S. Patriot Act noting that the decision to pass such an act were rushed and the effectiveness of the tools to unearth potential terrorism in the United States were difficult to ascertain specifically. Several provisions within the act were at issue, especially the particularly named library provision as well as the sneak and peek authority, which generated much public resistance as well as independent studies and opponents of the act itself (Herman). 

    A movement was begun to condemn the provisions within the Patriot Act The value of privacy, freedom of speech as well as freedom of religion were at stake and because of this reasoning the movement urged federal representatives to reexamine what the Patriot Act actually stated. Legal scholars when discussing the topic of the Patriot Act, typically cite the aforementioned provisions as being the sole issue of the movement.

    Yet, despite the protests and movement itself, the majority of the individuals when polled believed the Patriot Act was too lenient in what it sought to restrict (Herman). The question remained then, why the entire brawl regarding the Patriot Act if most people believed that it was a good act for Congress to pass? 

    Focal point of the Fourth Amendment

    What was at the focal point of the Patriot Act was the Fourth Amendment rights that individuals are afforded by the United States Constitution. The Fourth Amendment guards against irrational searches and seizures unless a warrant is obtained and supported by a rational cause. Given the access the government has now to items that once were deemed private, nothing anyone does in the privacy of their home is predominantly protected.  

    It would seem that in an effort to combat prospect terrorist attacks, the government was given free control by Congress to do whatever they felt like doing with regard to individual rights. The government was in essence given a green light to carry on practices such as water boarding and torment techniques to gain cooperative insight and information regarding probable terrorist attacks.

    Quintessentially, if an individual was deemed “threatening” by the government based on information despite their fourth amendment rights, the particular individual could potentially be exposed to the brutality that is water boarding. The core issue here was that of privacy. Yet, even with privacy being the core issue, there are many people still oblivious. 

    Commentators on the U.S. Patriot Act have continued to express concern about the breadth of the act itself. The American Civil Liberties Union has perhaps been the most candid on the issues surrounding the act.  In 2003, the ACLU files a constitutional challenge to the legislation, noting that the most pivotal grievance of the act was section 505's over-reaching of authority with regard to access to “citizen's library records, e-mail accounts and bookstore purchases.”

    In 2004, the federal court struck down the act, noting that the system had indeed overreached with regard to the supposed access to information (Bellas). Research studies on the Patriot Act, and in general, have found that the American people are largely distracted and in the dark about public affairs much to their detriment. Even with policy debates, the public typically demonstrates almost an aloof awareness to the most fundamental political details that affect them directly. Pollsters and analysts are usually tremendously vigilant when measuring public estimation on policies, including the Patriot Act, because when asked most Americans are ignorant to be able to take a clear position (Best and McDermott).

    The Supreme Court and Privacy

    The Supreme Court has

    "surmised [in many cases] that although the word privacy never appears [explicitly] in the Constitution, it could be inferred from the implicit meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The right to privacy can also be seen in the ability to have one's possessions free from public consumption, especially by the state. Thus, the value of privacy then accounts for examining not only conduct itself, but also keeping conduct from the prying eyes of others. The Court noted that the Fourth Amendment protects people and not places. The Court did, however reiterate that in most cases that certain places and/or objects do demand an expectation of privacy and reverted back to the laws of trespass to support such an argument" (Bellas).

    Therefore, it can be concluded that there is wiggle room per se in how the Fourth Amendment is interpreted by the system as a whole.

    The U.S. Patriot Act has been tied purposely to water boarding because it was rumored and noted to be used by the government to seek out potential terrorist and information regarding terrorist groups. Water boarding is a torture method that induces panic and suffering by forcing a person to inhale water into the sinuses, pharynx, larynx and trachea. The person's head is tilted backwards and water is poured into their upturned mouth and/or nose.

    The subject essentially is drowned from the inside, filling with water from the head down ("What Waterboarding Is"). There is a continuing debate over the efficacy and moral implications of water boarding but in short, it violates the Constitution because of its inhumane repugnancy.

    National security and the right to privacy

    The USA Patriot Act also restructured the balance of powers upon which the model of constitutional liberty rests. As limited as it sometimes, the climate of the courts as a check on unaccountable power has traditionally been the last resort for protecting American freedoms. The USA Patriot Act limits the courts' authority to issue warrants, limit appeals, and limits the basis for constitutional challenges to executive branch overreaching.

    It is not as simple as the press states for the government to do anything regarding the records and information that they can receive. Numerous rules preside over the circumstances and method in which state or federal government agents may act and amass verification that they are seeking. In addition, other rules rule the use of the facts that is indeed collected.

    Evidence can be potentially admitted into the legal system only if it has been with authorization collected in accordance with appropriate laws. The laws are very multifaceted, specific and intricate in implication with regard to the types of evidence that can be collected as well as any unexpected circumstances that may result in the process of said collection (Gilbert). In truth, many critics of the opposition to the Patriot Act have deemed it nothing but a series of amendments that are heavily enforced with a minimal, if absent amount of loopholes.

    The U.S. Patriot Act is not all bad, right?

    Thus, the Patriot Act is not necessarily as bad as it has been noted to be with regard to our civil liberties. Many terrorist attacks have indeed been thwarted due to the infamous monitoring that takes place of potential terrorists, known terrorists and suspicious behavior. The Patriot Act did facilitate information sharing and cooperation among government agencies so that they can better connect the dots as to preventing future attacks. But how comfortable can we be as citizens of a country that spies on it's own people?

    New technologies and new threat updates were made to the digital systems used to ensure that high-tech means were being uses to locate and identify killers. The act also increased the penalties for individuals who were captured, who had committed crimes ("The USA PATRIOT Act: Preserving Life and Liberty”). This of course, has allowed the United States to remain free, for most part since September 11, 2001. The Patriot Act is also good for other reasons as well.

    America needs the Patriot Act because it safeguards them against elaborate abuse. The act prevents counterterrorism agents from just doing anything.

    "The act's protections are even stronger than the grand jury rules. Prosecutors issue subpoenas unilaterally, but the Patriot Act requires the F.B.I. to get a judge's approval. Americans can't be investigated on the basis of First Amendment activities, and special limits apply to certain materials" (Sales).

    The Patriot Act then is a preventative measure rather than something cooked up by the government with the express purpose of monitoring anything and everything that happens within the United States. Could this be?

    Department of justice support

    The Department of Justice has continued to reiterate the need for the Patriot Act. The main aim of the act's denigration has been that the tools put forth in the act were already in place to fight organized crime. The Department of Justice offers that the legislation allows for much more lucidity among all law enforcement agencies and those penalties were enhanced for known terrorists who willingly violated the law.

    The act has also suspended immigration rules that were considered commonplace and granted extraordinary fortification to foreign nationals who were expected to be deported. The new law stated that detainees

    "needed to be charged within seven days or [be] released (Bellas) if they were not found to be involved with the 9/11 attacks as well as other events that took place thereafter." 

    When polled about the Patriot Act in Best and McDermott (2007) there appeared to be a proliferation in the type of polling. A close examination revealed whether the Patriot Act within the eyes of the American people did what it claimed, as well as whether the public actually had taken serious positions toward it. When examined individually, the polls appeared to portray that the public had serious positions on whether they felt the U.S. Patriot Act was good or not, with an overwhelming amount of individuals noting their support or disagreement for the legislation in each survey (Best and McDermott). 

    Polling data

    Opinion remained constant when organizations repeated their questions of a noted period of time. Several well-known polls were done: one by CBS News/New York Times, FoxNews/Opinion Trends, Gallup/CNN/USA Today and one by Hart Research. When the data was examined closely, there were differences; however, unveiling that subtle word changes and variations were what was altering the data noticeably.

    In effect, the study revealed that while many people felt the Patriot Act was good overall, they were not too familiar with it. Support for the act varied greatly, ranging anywhere from 69% to as low as 33%, yet these numbers shifted depending upon how the question was asked and the circulation of new information that was given in the study (Best and McDermott). For the individuals who were asked, it became harder and harder to ascertain public opinion about the Patriot Act and its implications.

    Therefore, the discussion on the U.S. Patriot Act, being good or bad is still rather a monotonous one given the fluctuating public opinions on the subject. Proponents of the Patriot Act have noted that the Patriot Act should not be repealed. Why? The act is a systematic toolbox setup to improve investigations and uphold civil liberties. Sanchez (2009) writes, "common sense checks have been proposed for [the] powers of the Patriot Act.

    All [of these] seek to protect the privacy of innocent Americans by strengthening oversight of these broad surveillance tools and to foreclose indiscriminate dragnet collection of data by requiring some minimal rational grounds for believing that the information sought is linked to terror" (Sanchez). It can thereby be established that Patriot Act has some value to it in spite of the provisions that have been put in there that dirty the protection waters.

    Diminishing privacy returns

    Despite this, our civil liberties have provided diminishing returns. The patriotism rug has been pulled out from under us for the mere perpetuation of fear itself.  The current US government has used fear and extreme nationalist fervor an attempt to prevent growing social movements that seek to once again attain the civil liberties lost all in the name of fighting terrorism.

    The Bush Administration and certain aspects of the Obama administration were and are counting on the fear of terrorism, war and economic privation to whip people into line behind their leadership (Stephens). Rebellion and dissent continues to erupt over the vanquishing of civil liberties following the September 11, 2001 attacks. 

    Decline of civil liberties?

    Yet, the civil liberties conversation did not begin and end with the USA Patriot Act. Other governmental regulations and executive orders have emerged too providing more reason that our civil liberties are indeed at the expenditure of others, violating the First and Fourth Amendment and all things the United States claims to stand for. There is always hope that our civil liberties will return to where they once were.

    That what has been taken advantage of can in some way be restored. Further examination by Congress in addition to what has been done thus far needs to be performed because the debate regarding the Patriot Act has continued to surface over the years (even since the provisions were shortly following the passage of the act). When this will happen, no one knows; yet it shows signs of guarantee as many groups and organizations are speaking out and fighting the legislation that was passed by Congress back in 2001 and the assessment of certain provisions since then to change and alter them, in an effort to revamp the rights provided to us by the Constitution and the general sense of confidentiality in our surroundings.

    Works Cited

    Bellas, Christopher M. "The USA Patriot Act: Legislative (In) Justice?" The Homeland Security Review, 6.3 (2012): 191-206. Print.

    Best, Samuel J., and Monika L. McDermott. "Measuring Opinions vs. Non-Opinions – The Case of the USA Patriot Act." The Forum 5.2 (2007): 1-30. Print.

    Gilbert, Francoise. "Demystifying the United States PATRIOT ACT." Journal of Internet Law (2013): 3-7. Print.

    Herman, Susan N. "The USA PATRIOT Act and the Submajoritarian Fourth Amendment." Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 4 (2006): 68-132. Print.

    Sales, Nathan A. "A Vital Weapon." The New York Times 8 Sept. 2011: Web. 21 Apr. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/09/07/do-we-still-need-the-patriot-act/the-patriot-act-is-a-vital-weapon-in-fighting-terrorism>.

    Sanchez, Julian. "The Patriot Act: Does It Actually Work?." Cato Institute, 21 Oct. 2009. Web. 21 Apr. 2013. <http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/patriot-act-does-it-actually-work>.

    Stephens, Tom. "Civil Liberties After September 11." CounterPunch, 11 July 2003. Web. 21 Apr. 2013. http://www.counterpunch.org/2003/07/11/civil-liberties-after-september-11/

    "The USA PATRIOT Act: Preserving Life and Liberty ." The Department of Justice, 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2013. < http://www.justice.gov/archive/ll/highlights.htm>.

    "USA PATRIOT Act." United States Department of the Treasury, 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2013. <http://www.fincen.gov/statutes_regs/patriot/>.

    "What Waterboarding Is." waterboarding.org, 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2013. <http://waterboarding.org/info>.

     
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