Ten years ago today, President Bush signed the Patriot Act into law. It passed with the support of all but 66 members of the House of Representatives and one Senator.
We were told at the time that it was an absolutely necessary law to give federal intelligence and law enforcement authorities the tools they needed to fight terror. This sweeping legislation generally beefed up federal “anti-terrorist” police powers, dramatically skewed surveillance procedures in the direction of executive prerogative, weakened the already paper-thin protections against warrantless wiretapping erected under the 1978 FISA statute, redefined financial institutions and the role government had in spying on their records, nationalized library records, created severe federal penalties for non-violent, white collar crimes of insufficient disclosure concerning money transfers, vastly pumped up border security, increased the jurisdiction of the Selective Service, empowered the FBI and other federal officials to use “national security letters” to subpoena information from private actors without anything approaching probably cause and in conjunction with gag orders that prevent the recipients of such letters to tell their attorneys, families, or anyone else that they received them, redefined “terrorism” to include crimes that previously were never considered to be terrorism, significantly eroded the Fourth Amendment, and did a number of other things to accelerate the central state’s powers and police activities in the name of fighting terrorism.
This was a key moment in the history of America as told in terms of the battle between liberty and power, power often winning in the name of security. Attorney General John Ashcroft said, in the midst of criticism of the Bush administration’s power grabs conducted in the guise of combating terrorism:
To those who pit Americans against immigrants, citizens against non-citizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.
Indeed, many defenders of the Patriot Act and all it symbolized stressed that the accusations of lost liberty were specious. Simultaneous to the argument that we needed to revolutionize federal anti-terror policy to deal with new threats came the paradoxical argument that government was not going to be doing anything it wasn’t essentially doing anyway.
For a couple years after it was passed, conservative champions of the Act often would ask rhetorically for one example of innocents being abused by the Act. This was always a silly argument, and I never understood why people repeated it with such certitude. The abuses began as soon as the Act was used. As James Bovard has written:
The first person convicted under the PATRIOT Act was Mohamed Hussein, a 33-year-old Somali native who ran a money-forwarding service out of Boston. Though Hussein was convicted merely for not having a state license, federal prosecutors sought a harsh sentence. Federal Judge Robert Keeton was outraged: “You’re trying to ask me to sentence him as a terrorist. It shocks my conscience that I would even be asked to do that.”