Bleeding the Black Ink

Security and freedom

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, there has been a growing debate over acceptable compromises to freedoms that we take for granted in order for what some consider to be greater security.

No one would argue that greater security is needed but how far should the government go in such pursuits?

In the frantic six months after terrorism struck, Congress passed the Patriot Act with little discussion or debate. But this piece of legislation has greatly revised the nation's surveillance laws and vastly expanded the government's authority to spy on its own citizens.

For instance, the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms but, with the new legislation, the government now has the right to know what books you are checking out of the public library. So apparently it is not important to the government to know about how many weapons an individual might own but it is a matter of national security to know when the last time he or she checked out a Harry Potter book?

The Patriot Act increases the government's surveillance powers in four areas:

  • Records searches. It expands the government's ability to look at records on an individual's activity being held by third parties. (Section 215)
    • Secret searches. It expands the government's ability to search private property without notice to the owner. (Section 213)
    • Intelligence searches. It expands a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment that had been created for the collection of foreign intelligence information (Section 218).
    • "Trap and trace" searches. It expands another Fourth Amendment exception for spying that collects "addressing" information about the origin and destination of communications, as opposed to the content (Section 214).
    • Expanded access to personal records held by third parties

One of the most significant provisions of the Patriot Act makes it far easier for the authorities to gain access to records of citizens' activities being held by a third party. At a time when computerization is leading to the creation of more and more such records, Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the FBI to force anyone at all -- including doctors, libraries, bookstores, universities, and Internet service providers -- to turn over records on their clients or customers.

The result is unchecked government power to rifle through individuals' financial records, medical histories, Internet usage, bookstore purchases, library usage, travel patterns, or any other activity that leaves a record.

The government also no longer has to show evidence that the subjects of search orders are an "agent of a foreign power," a requirement that previously protected Americans against abuse of this authority.

The FBI does not even have to show a reasonable suspicion that the records are related to criminal activity, much less the requirement for "probable cause" that is listed in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. All the government needs to do is make the broad assertion that the request is related to an ongoing terrorism or foreign intelligence investigation.

One could argue that law-abiding citizens would have nothing to hide so why not let the government have these overriding breaches into our lives. Of course, one would have to assume that the faceless bureaucrats who have these powers will have the highest ethics and will not be exposed to graft or corruption that could lead to the harm of a private citizen. Did I mention that Patriot Act II was introduced earlier this year? And while none of the details have been set in stone what details have been released show a continuation of eroding civil liberties as government continues to grow in its power of surveillance.

I know I certainly feel more safe.

"Bleeding the Black Ink" is a weekly column that aims at getting readers better acquainted with the Craig Daily Press, the First Amendment and the newspaper industry. Do you have a question or an issue for an upcoming column? Call Terrance Vestal at 824-7031 or email him at tvestal@craigdailypress.com.

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