Tuesday, October 11, 2005

PATRIOT ACT: No way of knowing what's going on?

This is optional reading for our Thursday session with Ty Resch about the
Haswell case.

-- bill


"The truth is, Americans have no way of determining just how many
investigations are underway, how many people have been arrested, and how
many have been convicted. Even so, most of the press corps simply repeated
the president's claims verbatim."


Think Again
Tough Questions: The Patriot Act and the Press

by Eric Alterman
June 23, 2005

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and
the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A
History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

In a report released on Monday to widespread mainstream media silence, the
American Library Association reported that domestic law enforcement
authorities have instigated more than 200 requests for information from
libraries since October 2001, the month the Patriot Act was hurriedly
passed and signed into law.

While this should be a cause for concern for any citizen, it comes with a
sad addendum: It would appear that the ALA doesn't trust the government
enough to house its findings on a computer server anywhere in the United
States. The ALA, in surveying U.S. libraries for a report on the impact of
the USA Patriot Act, housed its data on a computer server in Canada,
beyond the reach of U.S. authorities. This comes on the heels of a vote in
the House of Representatives last week . by a 238 to 187 margin . to roll
back the FBI's power to seize library and bookstore records.

The New York Times, which picked up on the story on Tuesday, reported that
the study fails to clarify just how authorities have used the Patriot Act
in libraries, as its secrecy provisions "could make it a crime for a
librarian to respond. Federal intelligence law bans those who receive
certain types of demands for records from challenging the order or telling
anyone they have received it."

But it's not only libraries that are feeling the heat of increased
government snooping into the private habits of citizens. The government
said Wednesday that after the Sept. 11 attacks it shared Social Security
information with law enforcement officials looking for terrorism suspects
and trying to identify victims. The Department of Homeland Security's
Transportation Security Administration plans to disclose in the Federal
Register that the agency has collected personal data about airline
travelers. This took place in spite of a congressional ban and the
agency's promise not to do so. The administration, apparently, considers
itself to be outside of laws passed by Congress and unbound by its own

All this activity comes as 16 provisions of the Patriot Act are coming up
for new votes in Congress. Members would do well to act in a more
thoughtful, considered manner than last time, in the panicked aftermath of
9/11. A new report from The Century Foundation, Rethinking the Patriot
Act: Keeping America Safe and Free, can provide just the context and
evenhanded information required. The report's author maintains that the
Act "remains gravely flawed. It gives almost no weight to the hidden costs
of a powerfully expanded intelligence-gathering capability. It fails to
draw reasonable boundaries; as a result, it permits unnecessary intrusions
on privacy and dangerous incursions on First Amendment freedoms of speech,
press, and religion."

Nowhere have I been able to locate any serious discussion of the issues
raised by The Century Foundation report, despite the fact that it offers
one of the most wide-ranging independent examinations of a law that offers
the government unprecedented domestic police and intelligence powers. This
is unfortunate because while no one would argue that reporters have
ignored the effects of the act in the three-plus years since it was
passed, neither could one honestly argue that the information passed along
to the public has done justice to the complexity of the issues it raises
and the trade-offs it demands.

One case in point can be found in a recent speech the president gave in
support of the 16 provisions set to expire at the end of the year.
Speaking at the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy on June 9, and focusing
exclusively on security issues, the president made the claim that the Act
has allowed authorities to "charge more than 400 people in terrorism
investigations since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and convict more than
half." Alas, in a first-rate piece of reporting published back on May 16,
the Des Moines Register reported that the Justice Department has, since
2001, vastly expanded its definition of what constitutes a
"terrorism-related" crime, and what's more, refuses to release figures as
to how many people it has arrested, and how many it has convicted. As The
Century Foundation points out, "One section [of the Act] expands the scope
of the offense of providing 'material support' to a terrorist
organization, in language that at least one federal court has held
unconstitutionally vague."

The Register's investigation also discovered that the Act's definition has
grown so elastic that when the authorities are hunting for a terrorist
suspect and make an arrest for other reasons, the case is still logged as
"anti-terrorism." In an almost comical aside, we learn this expansion of
the definition has swept into its net "College entrance-exam cheaters,
check forgers, sham husbands and those who overstay visas." What's more,
records show that officials at the Justice Department have instructed
federal prosecutors to catalog their work in ways that inflate the number
of terrorism investigations.

The truth is, Americans have no way of determining just how many
investigations are underway, how many people have been arrested, and how
many have been convicted. Even so, most of the press corps simply repeated
the president's claims verbatim.

One has to wonder just how often these reporters need to be given false
information by this president before they realize that nothing.absolutely
nothing.that comes out of this White House can be taken on faith, least of
all the compromising of our constitutional liberties.

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