Third Party & Independents Archives

A Measured Analysis of Abuses under the Patriot Act

The Patriot Act is becoming a major issue of dispute not only between President Bush and his liberal critics, but between Bush and those in the Republican Party with more libertarian leanings. As a libertarian and a supporter of the ACLU, I tend to oppose any expansion of government power that reduces the warrant or probable cause requirements for criminal investigations. While I have often heard about the dangerousness of the Patriot Act and have repeatedly said that I support the repeal of the sections that decrease Fourth Amendment protections, I admit that I did not actually know of any specific examples of abuse under that Act.

After spending a significant amount of time searching allegations of abuse under the Patriot Act as reported by reputable newspapers (thank you google!), I am a bit underwhelmed at the extent of the credible examples of abuses. Of the reported civil liberties abuses under the Patriot Act, almost all of them appear to be cases of law enforcement verbally abusing detainees, something not authorized under the Patriot Act. To blame the Patriot Act for abuse by police is equivalent to blaming criminal law provisions for abuse performed against prisoners in our prison system. The problem is that police do not respect these individuals’ rights to be free from abuse, not that the Patriot Act countenances this abuse.

I was skeptical of the Justice Department report, so I further investigated to see what other reputable sources had to report about Patriot Act misuse. The most credible claims of abuse are that the Patriot Act has been used to punish and capture non-terrorists, something that should surprise those who supported the measure as an anti-terrorism law in the wake of September 11th (this is a New York Times article- I have linked to a different source with the same text because some do not have access to New York Times online). For example, FBI officials in Las Vegas admitted to using the Patriot Act to obtain financial statements in a political corruption investigation. The federal prosecutor later denied using the Patriot Act to obtain phone conversations and other communications in that case, but it appears that they still concede using the Patriot Act to obtain the financial data. Also, a lady was prosecuted under the Patriot Act after she forged a threatening letter while aboard a cruise ship in hopes of making the ship dock so she could return to her boyfriend. She was sentenced to two years in prison, instead of the possible twenty- so this was no great injustice given the inconvenience her actions caused those on board the cruise and the cost to authorities from her hoax. It is odd, however, that she was prosecuted under a supposedly anti-terrorism measure.

Other allegations of Patriot Act applications to non-terrorist activities were less impressive. For example, some argue that the prosecution of Hai Duc Le under the Patriot Act for accidentally exploding a pipe bomb was improper. Yet, Hai Duc Le had a massive amount of explosives that he planned to detonate remotely, so it does not seem out of line to characterize his actions as terrorist. Finally, some critics point to the case of Martin Dwayne Miller, who was charged with the manufacture of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons of mass destruction for making methamphetamines. However, these reports are extremely misleading and disingenuous, as Miller was prosecuted under North Carolina State law and not under the Patriot Act.

Perhaps even more surprising was that, apparently, the government has never actually used the most infamous power under the Patriot Act, to obtain records from libraries under section 215. Given the outcry over this power, one would expect to find at least one credible claim of the government’s use of this power. Perhaps the Justice Department has used section 215 to obtain library records and has just kept the use secret (and then lied when it said that it has declassified the information), but this is an allegation without any substantiation.

While there are some troubling allegations regarding use of the Patriot Act against non-terrorists, I think even a libertarian like myself would have to admit that these do not justify the outcry that the Patriot Act has already destroyed our civil liberties. These abuses should certainly be opposed and exposed, but I will admit I expected to find far worse- mainly because the anti-Patriot Act rhetoric has been so sweeping.

The best way to sum up my opinion of the Patriot Act after doing this research was stated by Georgia Republican Bob Barr, "I don't care if there were no examples so far. We can't say we'll let government have these unconstitutional powers in the Patriot Act because they will never use them.” The government seems to have done a decent job of showing that it has not used its power under dangerous sections like 215, but what is interesting is that they are not denying that the Patriot Act does give them the expanded power to obtain library records and the like. Freedom-loving people know that provisions that enhance the government’s power do not lie dormant for long. Perhaps the Patriot Act has not led to the wide-spread violations of civil liberties that groups like the ACLU have implied, but I think there is just as much reason to repeal the provision of the act that would allow for such abuses before constitutional violations start occurring.

Posted by Misha Tseytlin at June 3, 2004 11:09 PM