Remaining both vigilant and patriotic is a delicate balancing act, as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is painfully discovering.
On Sunday, Brigitte Anderson, president of the ACLU of Montana, spoke at a Martin Luther King, Jr. dinner celebration in Hamilton about the frightening and largely undebated provisions of the so-called “USA Patriot Act,” passed hurriedly by Congress six weeks after the Sept. 11 attack.
Anderson quoted Rep. Barney Frank (D–Mass.) who called the terrorism-fighting Act “A bill drafted by a handful of people in secret.” According to the ACLU, few members of Congress even read the bill before voting on it.
The Act, says Anderson, casts “an incredibly wide net” in an effort to root out terrorism at home and abroad, blurring the lines between intelligence-gathering surveillance and searches and seizures in domestic criminal investigations.
The Act also minimizes judicial oversight of criminal investigations by giving the FBI greater authority to conduct secret searches in federal criminal investigations, a departure from the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which requires police to first obtain a warrant from a judge. Under the Act warrants may now be issued in secret if the investigators believe an open warrant would jeopardize the investigation.
The FBI now has broad access to personal records of people under investigation, including business, school and library records, without needing to show evidence that a crime has been committed.
Under the USA Patriot Act only the U.S. Secretary of State and Attorney General have the authority to label groups as “terrorist.” Non-citizens who belong to any of these designated groups may be denied entrance to the United States, and any non-citizen who pays dues to a known or suspected terrorist group—even if the donor did not know the true nature of the group—may be deported.
Citizens under surveillance may also be subject to random wiretaps issued by distant courts. A New York court, for instance, can issue a wiretap order for a Montana citizen or organization, but if the target of the wiretap wants to challenge it, he or she must do so before the court in which it was issued.
Additionally, non-citizens who have been ordered deported for minor visa violations may be detained indefinitely under the USA PATRIOT Act, even if they are not terrorists. If the deportee’s home country will not take back its citizen, or if he or she is ordered deported to a country with which the U.S. has no diplomatic ties, the deportee may be held indefinitely.
Despite such sweeping provisions, the Act aced little or no organized opposition. Sen. Russ Feingold (D–Wisc.) cast the sole dissenting vote.