On July 4, we celebrate an act of rebellion. In 1776, when Thomas Jefferson, among others, signed his name to the Declaration of Independence, it set off a chain of events that led first to a war with England and then to the eventual formation of the United States of America.
By 1789, when a new Constitution was set to take the place of the Articles of Confederation, it became apparent that something was missing. That something was the Bill of Rights--the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Wary of unfettered power, several states refused to join the union unless the amendments were ratified. By 1791, America had its Bill of Rights.
And that should have been it; with our civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, the nation's citizens could rest assured they would be secure and not live in fear of any arbitrary acts of government. Unfortunately, more than 200 years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the actions of Attorney General John Ashcroft threaten to eviscerate our civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.
When the Patriot Act was passed shortly after Sept. 11, alarms went off among groups concerned with the act's most egregious provisions. The American Civil Liberties Union has led the charge against the act with vocal opposition and an effective media campaign. Thanks to the ACLU, and other groups, the Patriot Act has not gone unchallenged.
In a National Public Radio broadcast not long ago, a commentator remarked that Americans have faced threats to their civil liberties in the past, and that the pendulum always swung back to the center. He expressed the belief that the same would happen in due time. But circumstances are different this time, and there is a strong probability that he is mistaken.
At no time in the past did the government have at its disposable technology enabling it to collect vast quantities of information about its citizens from various sources. Nor did it have the authority of law to do so. Under the aegis of the Patriot Act, however, the government is free to collect your educational, financial, medical, telephone, Internet and library records without your knowledge. Indeed, librarians, for example, are explicitly forbidden to tell their patrons if the government has obtained their records.
So you can forget about your right to privacy. Supposedly guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, this right has been close to gutted by provisions of the Act. Nancy Chang, a senior litigation attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, states, "To an unprecedented degree, the Act sacrifices our political freedoms in the name of national security and upsets the democratic values that define our nation by consolidating vast new powers in the executive branch of government." She also decries what she views as the Act's "three-pronged assault on our privacy."
According to Chang, "The Act grants the executive branch unprecedented, and largely unchecked, surveillance powers, including the enhanced ability to track e-mail and Internet usage, conduct sneak-and-peak searches, obtain sensitive personal records, monitor financial transactions and conduct nationwide roving wiretaps."
Further, "The act permits law enforcement agencies to circumvent the Fourth Amendment's requirement of probable cause when conducting wiretaps and searches that have, as a 'significant purpose,' the gathering of foreign intelligence."
And finally, "The Act allows for the sharing of information between criminal and intelligence operations and thereby opens the door to a resurgence of domestic spying by the Central Intelligence Agency."
Welcome to the bad-old-days of the '60s, when anti-war and civil rights groups were routinely infiltrated by agents provocateurs.
You can also forget about attorney client privilege. The Bureau of Prisons Emergency Surveillance Order, another provision of the act, allows federal agents to listen in on "private" conversations between attorneys and prisoners. In a further violation of the constitutional right to privacy, still another provision allows the government to search your home with no one present and with no need to notify you of the search. And if you thought you were safe at your place of worship, think again: The FBI can monitor religious (and political) groups, whether or not there is any evidence of wrongdoing.
Unhappily for Ashcroft and others who would sacrifice our liberties, the rebellious spirit that led to the unprecedented Declaration of Independence is alive and well. As of June 23, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee reports 129 local resolutions (Tucson passed one), one local ordinance and three states (Alaska, Vermont and Hawaii) that have gone on record opposing the Patriot Act. And the list continues to grow as more voices join the chorus petitioning for a repeal of the act.
As you fire up the grill this year in preparation for the July 4 festivities, you might pause and consider that our liberties, despite the Bill of Rights, are not guaranteed. Indeed, at this point in our history they are seriously threatened. And without our vigilance, they may just go up in smoke.