CIVIL LIBERTIES: A LOOK INTO THE FUTURE
After September 11, 2001, in the United States of America, many aspects of our daily lives have changed. One notable change has been the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Many bills are being drafted to ensure the safety of the United States. We, as Americans, are going to have to sacrifice many of our civil liberties due to this tragic event. There are many good reasons why these bills are being drafted, but there are also negative effects such as the loss of civil rights. One particular bill being drafted is the USA PATRIOT Act. The USA PATRIOT Act puts the CIA back in the business of spying on Americans. It permits a vast array of information gathering on U.S. citizens from financial transactions, school records, Internet activity, telephone conversations, information gleaned from grand jury proceedings and criminal investigations to be shared with the CIA (and other non-law enforcement officials) even if it pertains to Americans. Most importantly, the information would be shared without a court order.
While there is a need to shut down the financial resources used to further acts of terrorism, this legislation goes beyond its stated goal of combating international terrorism and instead reaches into innocent customers personal financial transactions. If the USA PATRIOT Act becomes a law, financial institutions would monitor daily financial transactions even more closely and be required to share information with other federal agencies, including foreign intelligence agencies such as the CIA. Section 358 requires that, in addition to law enforcement, intelligence agencies would also receive suspicious activity reports. These reports are usually about wholly domestic transactions of people in the United States, and do not relate to foreign intelligence information. In addition, Section 358 would allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies to get easy access to individual credit reports in secret. There would be no judicial review and no notice to the person to whom the records relate. Through these provisions, the CIA would be put back in the business of spying on Americans, and law enforcement and intelligence agencies would have a range of personal financial information without ever showing good cause as to why such information is relevant to a particular investigation.
Since September 11, Federal, state, and local law enforcement officials have faced few barriers in accessing student information. According to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, about 200 colleges and universities have turned over student information to the FBI, INS, and other law enforcement officials. Investigators have accessed information about foreign exchange students, students in particular fields of study, including flight training, and students of particular ethnicities, including US citizens. However, law enforcement officials want even easier access to a broader range of student information. Section 508 of the USA PATRIOT Act would allow law enforcement to access the student data collected for the purpose of statistical research under the National Education Statistics Act (NESA). The NESA includes a vast amount of identifiable student information and -until now- has been held to strict confidentiality requirements without exception. While the bill requires a court order, it would be issued based on a mere certification that the records are relevant to an investigation. This standard is insufficient to protect the privacy of sensitive information contained in student records.
The USA PATRIOT Act permits a wide sharing of sensitive information gathered in criminal investigations by law enforcement agencies with intelligence agencies including the CIA and the NSA. Section 203(a) of the bill would permit law enforcement agents to provide to the CIA foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information revealed to a grand jury. No court order would be required. As a result, the foreign intelligence information about Americans that could be shared with the CIA is not necessarily information to protect against attacks, or is necessary to the national defense or security of the United States. Section 203(b) would permit law enforcement officers to share with the CIA intercepts of telephone and Internet conversations. Again, no court order would be necessary to authorize the sharing of this sensitive information. While some sharing of information may be appropriate in some limited circumstances, it should be done with strict safeguards. These safeguards include protecting information about U.S. persons from disclosure to the CIA, requiring a court approval for disclosure, limiting disclosure to foreign intelligence information as defined in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, limiting disclosure to foreign governments, and requiring that disclosed information be marked to indicate how it was obtained and how it can and cannot be used or disseminated. The bill lacks all of these safeguards.
On September 19, only eight days after the tragic terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the Bush Administration unveiled its proposed Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), which includes many changes to the nations current surveillance laws. The ACLU has five overall concerns about the surveillance provisions of the legislation being
They would reduce or eliminate the role of judges in ensuring that law enforcement wiretapping is conducted legally and with proper justification. There is no reason why the requirement to get a court order for surveillance should slow down the investigation of suspects for which there is evidence of terrorist activities.
They would dangerously erode the longstanding distinction between domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence collection, which protects Americans from being spied upon by their own intelligence agencies, as happened during the Cold War.
The definition of terrorism is to broad, permitting the special surveillance powers granted in this legislation to be applied far beyond what is commonly thought of by the term. Under the definition proposed by the Administration, even acts of simple civil disobedience could lead organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to become targets of terrorist investigations.
Many of the expansions in surveillance authority being considered are not limited to even the broad definition of terrorism investigations.
The Congress is moving unnecessarily and irresponsibly quickly on these measures. It takes a great deal of time to deal with complex issues such as how to apply wiretap law to the Internet, and to think through all the possible unintended consequences of legislative language. Few of the provisions being discussed are needed for the current terrorism investigations, so Congress should take the time to do it right.
Security and civil liberties do not have to be at odds. Law enforcement authorities already have great leeway under current law to investigate suspects in terrorist attacks including broad authority to monitor telephone and Internet communications. In fact, under current law, judges have rejected only three federal or state criminal wiretap requests in the last decade.
This is a country that understands that people have fundamental God-given rights and liberties and our government is constituted to protect those rights. We cannot in our efforts to bring justice diminish those liberties, said Sen. George Allen, R-Va., in a statement responding to the terrorist attacks. Clearly this is not a simple, normal criminal case. This is an act of war, and those rules of warfare may apply. But here at home and domestically, we need to make sure that were not tempted to abrogate any civil rights such as habeas corpus, protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, the freedom of expression and peaceable assembly, or freedom of religion.
1. www.aclu.org, The American Civil Liberties Union, 2001
2. www.corpwatch.org, CorpWatch, 2001
3. www.msnbc.com, MSNBC Terms and Conditions, 2001
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