In response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress and then President George W. Bush crafted a bill that any sensible critic would’ve called an abomination. A blatant power grab by the government, the PATRIOT Act dramatically redefined what was considered private in the US. The bill, riddled with bureaucratic double-speak, sought to expand the ways in which intelligence and law-enforcement agencies went about collecting, gathering and sorting information that may or may not be pertinent to ongoing investigations or terrorist threats. It expanded the definition of “domestic terrorism” and stepped up surveillance on both foreign figures and citizens linked, however vaguely, to any sort of terrorist plot.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) voiced their condemnation of the bill, even going so far as to call it unconstitutional. Whether or not they were right has never been successfully established in a court of law. At the time of the bill’s introduction, and in the years that followed, quite a number of Democratic legislators accused Bush of attempting to police privacy. They painted a stark, 1984-esque picture of how the future would be if the bill became law. President Obama, then candidate Obama, stated on the campaign trail that he would repeal most of the provisions of the law that were controversial (along with closing Guantanamo Bay), but he not only reneged on that promise, he also extended the Act another four years in May 2011.
And now President Obama has impressively managed to surpass President Bush in his efforts to stomp all over our constitutional rights. On the last day of 2011, a day clearly picked because it would garner the least amount of coverage in the 24-hour news cycle, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law. This year, the act, which has been passed every year for the past five decades, greatly expands the scope of government in ways that the previous Republican regime never imagined.
Two sections of the bill in particular, 1021 and 1022, have had many people up in arms over the legality of the legislation. Section 1021 gives the president the power to detain anyone who is linked to any terrorist group indefinitely. The section also grants the president the power to use the military as a conduit for detaining these persons. Section 1022 grants the President the power to use the military to detain persons suspected of terrorism, even if the people in question are American citizens.
This goes against everything that the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees Americans due process of law, stands for. Now, without any concrete forethought or evidence, the government can indefinitely detain anyone considered a terrorist or a terrorist sympathizer, regardless of whether or not they’re American. This is an outrage, a breach in trust between the public and its government and a complete disregard of the Constitution.
When these two sections were first proposed in November and subsequently added to the overall bill, the White House came out with tough language condemning them, even threatening that the president would veto the bill if it landed on his desk with the provisions intact. However, the president did nothing to ensure the sections were left out. He not only failed to put pressure on members of his own party, he also flip-flopped on yet another issue. Only this time it wasn’t some inconsequential social issue; it was a true threat to the very liberties that this country has trumpeted since independence.
Once again, a politician sought cover on a bill that he knew was wrong for the country, but the lust for more power, the possibility of further-expanding the government, was simply too sweet to resist. The ACLU has been attempting to mobilize their supporters and raise public awareness so that we might pressure our legislative representatives to pass amendments to this law to repeal sections 1021 and 1022. So far, there has been little luck with this endeavor.
The biggest difference between the NDAA and the PATRIOT Act isn’t necessarily that the latter was less egregious than the former. It is the fact that when the Bush Administration proposed the PATRIOT Act, there was a national debate on it. The bill was passed on its own, the good and the bad were laid out for all to see, chastise and criticize.
The current administration, on the other hand, took the path of the coward and quietly allowed these heinous provisions to be passed behind closed doors. They knew that if they made a separate bill for these provisions, it would never get any votes in Congress, and the decision would have fractured President Obama’s base, effectively handing the presidency to the Republicans.
Liberty is under siege in this country. Gone are the days when the United States was a beacon of freedom and liberty for the world. Now, the government is unilaterally tapping people’s phones without any consent while secret courts hand out secret warrants that authorize law enforcement agencies to break into people’s homes. At this rate, we will soon be fondly remembering the good old days wherein the PATRIOT Act was the law of the land and government only scrutinized our private lives when surveillance and warrant issues were at play. This is what America has become. Unless this law is repealed, there is little hope that things will get better.
Four years ago, the ultra-charismatic politician sitting in the White House painted Americans a Norman Rockwell-esque picture of their country, one that was full of hope, full of positive change. Instead, he has delivered the exact opposite—a land of the free no longer.