On November 14, 2001 President George W. Bush signed the USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (I kid you not)) Act into law and the United States entered a new era in law enforcement and civil liberties. The law was passed in response to the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many argue that the law is essential to safeguard the lives of America's citizens while others hold that it is an unforgivable breach of civil liberties. The bill was first proposed on September 24, 2001 by the Bush administration. The following is a brief summary of some of the major points of the bill:

  • Grants broader authority to law enforcement officials in regard to conducting digital surveillance such as wire taps and email monitoring.
  • Allows federal authorities to conduct searches without informing those being investigated, which is normally standard procedure.
  • Lays the basis for broader cooperation between the FBI, CIA, NSA and INS in criminal investigations, involving the CIA and NSA in domestic issues on an unprecedented scale.
  • Allows for labeling of vocal protestors as "domestic terrorists". Activities which could brand these groups as domestic terrorists have already been taken by groups such as Operation Rescue, the Earth Liberation Front and Greenpeace.
  • Grants the FBI access to business, personnel, medical, travel, library and educational records without the consent of the business or the individual.
  • Allows law enforcement officers to side-step the requirement for a search warrant if it "may seriously jeopardize an investigation".

The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 357-66. It passed in the Senate on the following day by a vote of 98-1. The only Senator to vote against the act was Russ Feingold, a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin. The following passages are excerpts from his speech on the Senate floor in response to the bill:

"I have approached the events of the past month and my role in proposing and reviewing legislation relating to it in this spirit. I believe we must we must redouble our vigilance. We must redouble our vigilance to ensure our security and to prevent further acts of terror. But we must also redouble our vigilance to preserve our values and the basic rights that make us who we are.

The Founders who wrote our Constitution and Bill of Rights exercised that vigilance even though they had recently fought and won the Revolutionary War. They did not live in comfortable and easy times of hypothetical enemies. They wrote a Constitution of limited powers and an explicit Bill of Rights to protect liberty in times of war, as well as in times of peace.

There have been periods in our nation’s history when civil liberties have taken a back seat to what appeared at the time to be the legitimate exigencies of war. Our national consciousness still bears the stain and the scars of those events: The Alien and Sedition Acts, the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the internment of Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans during World War II, the blacklisting of supposed communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era, and the surveillance and harassment of antiwar protesters, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the Vietnam War. We must not allow these pieces of our past to become prologue."

"Was it not at least partially bias, however, when passengers on a Northwest Airlines flight in Minneapolis three weeks ago insisted that Northwest remove from the plane three Arab men who had cleared security?

Of course, given the enormous anxiety and fears generated by the events of September 11th, it would not have been difficult to anticipate some of these reactions, both by our government and some of our people. Some have said rather cavalierly that in these difficult times we must accept some reduction in our civil liberties in order to be secure.

Of course, there is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. If we lived in a country that allowed the police to search your home at any time for any reason; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your email communications; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to hold people in jail indefinitely based on what they write or think, or based on mere suspicion that they are up to no good, then the government would no doubt discover and arrest more terrorists.

But that probably would not be a country in which we would want to live. And that would not be a country for which we could, in good conscience, ask our young people to fight and die. In short, that would not be America.

Preserving our freedom is one of the main reasons that we are now engaged in this new war on terrorism. We will lose that war without firing a shot if we sacrifice the liberties of the American people.

That is why I found the antiterrorism bill originally proposed by Attorney General Ashcroft and President Bush to be troubling."

"In the play, "A Man for All Seasons," Sir Thomas More questions the bounder Roper whether he would level the forest of English laws to punish the Devil. "What would you do?" More asks, "Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?" Roper affirms, "I’d cut down every law in England to do that." To which More replies:

"And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast . . . and if you cut them down . . . d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake. "

We must maintain our vigilance to preserve our laws and our basic rights.

We in this body have a duty to analyze, to test, to weigh new laws that the zealous and often sincere advocates of security would suggest to us. This is what I have tried to do with this anti-terrorism bill. And that is why I will vote against this bill when the roll is called.

Protecting the safety of the American people is a solemn duty of the Congress; we must work tirelessly to prevent more tragedies like the devastating attacks of September 11th. We must prevent more children from losing their mothers, more wives from losing their husbands, and more firefighters from losing their heroic colleagues. But the Congress will fulfill its duty only when it protects both the American people and the freedoms at the foundation of American society. So let us preserve our heritage of basic rights. Let us practice as well as preach that liberty. And let us fight to maintain that freedom that we call America.

I yield the floor."

There are many, such as myself, who feel that this act is unjust and that to name it the Patriot Act (thereby immediately ensuring its passage amidst a patriotic fervor) is blasphemous and offensive to the principles our country was founded upon. One can only hope that as time and administrations pass, so too will this heinous law and we can return again to our lives, where we need fear neither attack from abroad or from within.

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
- Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Letter to Josiah Quincy, September 11, 1773.

Complete Text of Senator Feingold's Speech:

Complete Text of Patriot Act:
http://www.senate.gov/search/index.html - Search for "H.R.3162.ENR"


Thanks to QXZ, C-Dawg and Simpleton for pointing out the full name of the Act