Unpatriotic Side of the Patriot Act
By Siddique Malik
Louisville, KY

It was not surprising to hear that the FBI was found abusing the national security letter provision of the Patriot Act. Lack or absence of judicial oversight on any mechanism would open the door to its being abused. Before I proceed, let me pause to pay tributes to the framers of our Constitution. They instilled a laborious concept of checks and balances in the Constitution so as to thwart the abuse of power. Gradually this concept became an integral part of America’s psyche. This concept has worked extremely well in all areas and has been the reason behind the high quality work at various levels of law enforcement.
The FBI crushed the mafia, kept strict vigilance against corporate crime, foiled a terrorist plan to bomb a few American planes that were to take off from an airport in the Philippines (this happened before the 9/11 tragedy), caught the would-be terrorists as they entered our country from Canada en-route to Seattle with the intention to bomb the new-millennium festivities on December 31, 1999; and the list goes on. Yes, the FBI made a few mistakes.
Especially devastating was the mistake over keeping an eye on the 9-11 planners, but nonetheless it was just an error, and to err is human. Overall, the FBI deserves immense credit for keeping America safe.
The FBI achieved the above goals while operating under strict judicial oversight. Actually, this oversight was the trigger for its successes. When the FBI knew that it could only employ procedures that a court could approve, it worked hard and in the process reached the potential criminals.
When a doctor, in search of potential diseases, applies pressure at those parts of your body where generally even your spouse would not look, it is as much for the purpose of protecting your health as it is to avoid a potential legal suit against the doctor him/herself. Accountability is the mother of success. But then came along the Patriot Act that removed judicial oversight from certain FBI activities, e.g. national security letters, and the natural human weaknesses kicked in.
When you know you can get away with a lapse, your motivation to avoid lapses evaporates. Pretty soon you find yourself depending on unsubstantiated quick fixes. With no neutral third-party oversight, not only the problem may go undetected, it may actually worsen. This is what happened at the FBI. The inspector-general found that the national security letters were being issued excessively. I would not be surprised if we find out that at some point during this process, a potential terrorist got way from the FBI gaze because some of its agents felt lulled by the false securities of the Patriot Act.
The more unfettered powers a law-enforcement agency gets, the more such powers it demands and thinks it needs. The natural result is the absence of fairness in administrative mechanisms and a lack of security in society. Look at any dictatorial dispensation and you would understand this argument. Saudi Arabia is one of the most suppressive societies in the world, where the concept of habeas corpus is as unknown as a female face in a shopping center or a driver seat. Yet there are more terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia than in America.
Some clauses of the Patriot Act are very unpatriotic in their nature and effect. First of all these clauses contravene the American values. Secondly, they were created as a knee-jerk reaction to a tragedy at a time when most of the legislators had lost the fortitude to uphold America’s commitment to due process and judicial oversight and were railroaded by a shortsighted administration bent upon glorifying itself and presenting itself as messiah in the wake of the gloom caused by a tragedy. Therefore, the concept of checks and balances slipped though the cracks in this legislation while politicians who only care about the opinion poll results were busy checking their approval ratings.
It is time to make the entire Patriot Act subservient to judicial oversight and thus restore the FBI’s ability, reasons and motivation to do solid crime-prevention and terrorism-suppression work. America’s safety requirements desperately need this statutory correction. These are dangerous times; we cannot afford to lower our guards, administrative as well judicial.

 


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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