Write us!

Summer 2002 • Vol 2, No. 7 •

What is the USA Patriot Act?

By Doreen Miller

This is a compelling description of the USA PATRIOT Act which passed the U.S. Senate 98-1 and passed the US House of Representatives 357-66 in October 2001. The bill eviscerates many of the protections of the Bill of Rights by allowing the Government to search people’s homes without a warrant, to monitor electronic communication without a warrant, to imprison citizens for 6 months without seeing a judge, and much more.


Q: Just who is a terrorist?

A: Anyone Attorney General Ashcroft designates as one.

Q: On what evidence can Ashcroft designate someone as a terrorist?

A: Mere suspicion and hearsay.

Q: What legal rights and Constitutional protections does someone detained on the grounds of being a suspected terrorist have?

A: Next to none.

It may be difficult for some hard-core, patriotic Americans to believe the veracity of the preceding questions and answers, but the answers to the questions are based upon the implications and dangerous ramifications of the USA PATRIOT Act (USAPA) that was passed last October by so-called congressional representatives who never bothered to read or debate it.

It slipped through at the midnight hour under the cover of darkness, voted on by men and women engulfed in a terrifying atmosphere of shock, fear, mass media hysteria, and suspiciously targeted anthrax mailings.

U.S. government officials would have us believe that this 342-page, complexly nuanced document was allegedly crafted after September 11 in the time span of a little over a month. To accomplish this feat would have required the in-depth study of fifteen other lengthy acts and statutes which it modifies and amends.

The act’s extremely clever, yet highly misleading, acronym—USA PATRIOT—which stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism,” is an obvious attempt to intimidate and brand as “unpatriotic” and treasonous anyone who might dare to question its alarmingly overreaching provisions.

In light of the egregious evisceration of the Bill of Rights that this law undertakes, those who blindly supported and signed this blatantly unconstitutional act into law should be collectively condemned and charged with high treason to the Constitution and the people of the United States of America.

Careful perusal of the USAPA reveals that it defiantly and maliciously tramples on:

• The First Amendment—the people’s right to exercise freedom of religion, speech and peaceful assembly “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances;”

• The Fourth Amendment—the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” whereby warrants—only to be issued upon “probable cause”—must be specific as to place to be searched and persons or things to be seized;

• The Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth amendments which outline the right to due process—a trial by one’s peers, to face one’s accuser as well as view the evidence against oneself, and to have an attorney;

• The Eighth Amendment—which safeguards the people against excessive bail and fines, or cruel and unusual punishment.


What is a “terrorist?”

Under sections 411 and 802 in the USAPA, a terrorist is loosely defined as anyone who is “a representative of a foreign terrorist organization, as designated by the Secretary of State,” and domestically, anyone engaging in “activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; APPEAR to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; TO INFLUENCE THE POLICY OF A GOVERNMENT BY INTIMIDATION OR COERCION….” [capitals mine]

The inclusion of the word “appear” leaves interpretation of the law wide open to subjectivity and personal whim, as anyone can rightfully claim something “appears” to be intended for a particular purpose. Note also that our first amendment right to gather in protest against what we may see as unjust government policies could easily fall under the concept of “influencing” government policy by “intimidation or coercion.”

Anyone participating in activist groups such as Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or in protests like the 1999 demonstration in Seattle against the World Trade Organization could find himself suddenly stripped of his rights by the simple act of being declared a “terrorist” in keeping with the definition of this law. Under section 803 of this Act, even the simple act of giving food or shelter to a friend who may have been involved in any of the aforementioned activities could, in turn, have you incriminated and branded as a “terrorist” as well.

The USA Patriot Act absolutely shreds to bits the fourth amendment. Section 213 permits so-called “sneak and peek” searches. That means the government has the right to go into your home while you are away, copy your hard drive, files, or whatever, gather and take any information or items they please without ever serving you notice since “the execution of a warrant may have adverse effect.” They can then delay serving you notice for up to 90 days after the fact. These newfangled warrants can now be issued for a flimsy “reasonable cause,” further undermining the much more difficult to achieve “probable cause” stipulation of the fourth amendment.

Sections 216, 217 and 218 allow for unrestricted wiretapping, the tracing and spying on email messages and internet activities of anyone anywhere in the USA without the need to obtain a court order as long as “the information likely to be obtained... is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.” How nebulous can that get? A lawyer of any worth would be able to argue the “relevance” of anything to an unspecified “ongoing criminal investigation.” Kiss your protection from “unreasonable searches” good-bye and say hello to Big Brother USA.

If you think this law applies only to foreign nationals, think again. José Padilla, although by no means a model U.S.-born citizen, had his civil rights stripped from him this past May just by Ashcroft’s uttering the magic words, “enemy combatant” and “suspected terrorist.” To this day, no solid evidence has been produced to substantiate Ashcroft’s claims—neither bomb parts, nor bomb assembly instructions, nor any plans or maps of intended strike areas.

A “suspected terrorist,” according to section 112, needs only to be “certified” by the Attorney General on “reasonable grounds” that he “believes” someone to be engaged in terrorist activities. Again, no solid evidence is required, only a belief or suspicion suffices.


Unprecedented powers for the Attorney General

Section 236A gives the Attorney General unprecedented powers, untouchable by any court, whereby he may detain a suspect in increments of up to six months at a time if he believes the suspect’s release would threaten national security, or the safety of the community or any person. “At the Attorney General’s discretion” [read: personal whims], “NO court shall have jurisdiction to review, by habeas corpus petition, or otherwise, any such action or decision.” [Capitals mine]

In other words, the Attorney General’s word is sacrosanct! To give one man such grave and all-encompassing power over the fate of any other individual is what happens in fascist police states, not in a free and openly democratic society.

Whatever happened to one’s right to face one’s accuser, to have a fair trial by one’s peers, to be allowed to view the evidence against oneself, or to have an attorney?

Is it not cruel and unusual punishment to be denied your civil rights, to be considered guilty until you can “prove yourself innocent”—which is very difficult to do—to be held in prison on “secret evidence” for months or years on end with no access to a lawyer and no chance of defending yourself against false and unfounded accusations?

I heard President Bush on the news a few weeks ago boasting that the U.S. has so far “captured and detained over 2,400 suspected terrorists.” Yet, by most accounts, most people being detained were initially brought in on minor violations (which in a saner world would not have resulted in incarceration), and have not had any terrorist-related charges brought against them.

To this day, it is my understanding that fewer than a dozen have actually been connected to any terrorist activity. Is that what a democracy does: imprison whole groups of people to catch the fewer than 1 percent who are actually committing criminal acts?

The USA PATRIOT Act also includes under the “crimes of terrorism” umbrella the destruction of property even if no one is hurt (section 808), telemarketing fraud (section 1011), as well as any kind of computer hacking (section 217). Under the rubric of “guilt by association,” this act also permits the denial of entry to and even the imprisonment of “the spouse or child of an inadmissible alien” who’s been “designated” as a terrorist within the past five years (section 211).

Government access to personal records

The FBI can now legitimately demand access to anyone’s business, medical, student, bank, library or any other personal records in order “to protect against ... clandestine intelligence activities.” (Sec. 501) The Associated Press reported on June 25 that the FBI has been reviewing the library records of several hundred individuals in libraries across the nation using a quick and largely secret process which is now legal under the PATRIOT Act.

Judith Krug, the American Library Association’s director for intellectual freedom, in a straight-forward statement is quoted as saying, “... these records and information can be had with so little reason or explanation. It’s super secret, and anyone who wants to talk about what the FBI did at their library faces prosecution. That has nothing to do with patriotism.”

It seems we must now extend Ashcroft’s warning about watching what we say in public to include what we may read as well. It is really not such a large leap to imagine our hyperparanoid government beginning to imprison people suspected of “aiding and abetting the enemy” based upon their “unpatriotic” ideologies and choice of reading material.

The USA PATRIOT Act creates and allows for a virtual police state with little to no judicial oversight. We, as a nation, are literally treading the razor’s edge when it comes to flirting with the grave dangers inherent in giving up our rights for the empty promises of “safety” and “national security” masquerading under the guise of a “patriotic” PATRIOT Act. Once we fall off that edge, reclaiming and reinstating our rights, authority and power as “WE THE PEOPLE” of this great nation might prove very difficult.

The next obvious question is: just what can the average person do? Across this nation, wise and enlightened individuals have been forming groups to fight the injustices that the PATRIOT Act imposes on us. Resolutions have been passed unanimously by city councils in Amherst, Leverett, Northampton, Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Denver, and Cambridge. Other cities and towns are in the process of preparing their own resolutions and gathering signatures on petitions to protect our civil liberties against the offenses of this Act.

The Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee’s website, (www.gjf.org/NBORDC), offers a wide range of organizing tools, links, and information about similar campaigns around the country to help you get started in your own community.

A rally in Boston this past June 22 [See article in this issue] kicked off a movement in Massachusetts to gather 100,000 signatures to petition the state’s congressional delegates to introduce a bill that would call for the repeal or amendment of those sections of the PATRIOT Act that stand in clear violation of our constitutional rights. For more information or to get involved, you may contact the ACLU of Massachusetts at 617-482-3170 x 314.

At this critical juncture, to sit back and naïvely trust our government officials to protect anything other than maintaining their own uncontested, ill-gotten power is to risk losing the very liberties, rights, and freedoms our founding fathers fought so hard to procure for each and every one of us.

If we don’t stand up for our rights, then who will? If we don’t demand the extension of these same rights to all people within our borders, then we are nothing but accomplices in the hypocritical, haphazard, and biased application of our nation’s core principles of democracy and equal rights.


Note: The final official version of the USA PATRIOT Act can be found here:

Doreen Miller encourages your comments: dmiller@YellowTimes.org





Write us