September 11th, 2001, began as a normal day for most Americans. They arose and began their daily routines, not yet realizing that horrific events would their world forever. For on this day, America suffered brutal terrorist attacks that included the destruction of both towers of the World Trade Center, a renowned landmark in New York City. The outrages did not end there. The Pentagon was also targeted, resulting in much damage and loss of lives. The suicide terrorists used fuel laden commercial aircraft as missiles, which they flew into buildings, with devastating results. An additional attack was planned, but the passengers on the aircraft fought the terrorist for control of the plane. The result was that the aircraft crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing everybody on board. The true target of that plane remains unknown. Theories include CIA headquarters, the White House, or the House of Representatives. One thing is certain, had the plane reached its intended target, there would have been even more destruction and loss of life.
Following the attacks, the nation was united in a defiant determination to combat this new kind of threat to its security and well-being. A similar kind of reaction occurred in 1941 when Japan launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Then, too, the nation and its elected officials put aside politics and rallied to the defense of the country by declaring war on Japan.
After the events of 9/11, America did not declare war on a specific country but did declare war against terrorism. Just forty-five days after the attacks, the USA PATRIOT Act was passed. USA PATRIOT is an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America [by] Providing Appropriate Tools for Intercepting and Obstructing Terrorism. The Act became law when President Bush officially signed the document on October 26th, 2001. The Patriot Act is a very lengthy and complex piece of legislation. Within the framework of the Bill are ten separate titles. Each title deals with a specific area such as: Title I, “Enhancing Domestic Security Against Terrorism;” Title IV, “Protecting the Border. (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001)” In turn, each Title contains numerous sections. This maze of legal jargon, leading to many different interpretations, has given rise to much argument. Controversy was to be expected over any bill that amended so many laws, including immigration, banking, money laundering, and rewriting of the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act” (FISA).
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Usually before a bill is ready to be voted on, it has gone through the “conference committee” process. This is a meeting where legislators can discuss and work out any differences they might have pertaining to the intent and wording of the document. This, however, did not happen prior to the passage of the PATRIOT Act. The reason was that deadly anthrax spores had been found in the mail destined for the House and Senate. This cause a temporary shut down of the federal office buildings at a time when discussion concerning the Patriot Act would have been taking place. Therefore there were no scheduled hearings, very little debate, and no opportunity for negotiating amendments.
The voting in favor of passage was almost unanimous in the Senate, with just one vote in the negative. The lone dissenter was Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who cautioned against the opportunity for misusing the powers granted by the Patriot Act. In his warning speech, Senator Feingold stated, “We must examine every item that is proposed in response to these events to be sure we are not rewarding these terrorists and weakening ourselves by giving up the cherished freedoms that they seek to destroy.”(Feingold)
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The law, as initially designed, was meant to make it difficult to carry out harmful activities against the U.S. Although that sounds a very reasonable goal, many civil liberties watchdog groups, such as the “American Civil Liberties Union,” (ACLU) allege that the act is being used to erode American citizens’ liberties and rights.
The purpose of the Act seems to be clear and straightforward; that is to combat terrorism. However, the Patriot Act has proven to be a very controversial piece of legislation. Debate is to be expected and encouraged in a free society where people are guaranteed certain protections by the Constitution, but the arguing over the Patriot Act is growing more acrimonious by the day.
The flames of the controversy were fanned even higher, when, in 2002, the Bush administration managed to achieve passage of the Homeland Security Act. The legislation laid the groundwork for literally hundreds of new regulations governing American citizens and businesses. Many politicians, eager to include their own “pork barrel” projects, even though they had nothing to do with security, did not even bother to read the full text of the 484-page document.
Thus, on January 1st, 2003, the Department of Homeland Security was established. Many now perceive this, coupled with the Patriot Act, to be a huge power grab by the administration. There is an ever-increasing ground swell of opposition centering on allegations that the Government is misusing power and violating civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Daily newspapers and weekly magazines are full of articles either defending or castigating the Patriot Act. The wording of the Act mainly states that it is, “to deter and punish terrorists,” with a statement added at the end that says, “and for other purposes.” It is the use of these, “other purposes,” that is causing the most concern. For example, in 2004, the ACLU sued the FBI alleging that the Bureau, using the auspices of the Act, demanded that an Internet provider hand over its proprietary records, including finance and business information, not pertinent to any ongoing investigation. Even though the Justice Department and FBI officials refused to comment on this case in particular, defenders of the Act point out that terrorists have used personal Internet accounts to promote their anti-American cause. Although it is true that terrorists use personal Internet accounts to encourage their views, it seems unreasonable to scrutinize the entire populace for these select individuals. It is a gross violation of privacy.
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There have been many examples of what some consider the illegal use of power. Certain environmental groups accuse the Government of using the Act for “sneak and peek” warrants, wiretaps, and Internet surveillance (Mittelstadt).
They cite the example of the Government’s so-called case against the environmental group, Greenpeace. On May 12th, 2005, the Government labeled the group a terrorist organization (“Greenpeace Charged as ‘Terrorists’ for Anti-GMO Protest in Denmark”).
The charges stem from a 2003 action when Greenpeace members hung a banner, protesting genetically modified crops, on the headquarters of a Danish agricultural organization. Greenpeace had also posted maps of three U.S. toxic chemical plants that they considered violated environmental law (Ridenour).
For these actions, which involved individual members, the whole Greenpeace organization was charged with terrorism. Supporters of the Act state that the maps Greenpeace posted could assist terrorists to plan an attack on the chemical plants. Opponents argue that Greenpeace was functioning well within their Constitutional rights, including the first amendment rights to freedom of speech and petition. Both sides of the debate have valid points. However, the question is whether America is willing to forfeit certain civil liberties for the presumed added security provided by the PATRIOT Act?
In the same vein, librarians and booksellers fear that the PATRIOT Act could open their clients’ reading lists to routine scrutiny by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or other Government agencies. However, in a rebuttal article in the Wall Street Journal, dated January 30th, 2006, Debra Burlingame questions how many members of the public know that several of the hijackers repeatedly access computers at public libraries in New Jersey and Florida, using personal Internet accounts to carry out the conspiracy. She deems it ridiculous to suggest that the Justice Department has either the resources or interest, “to investigate the reading habits of law abiding citizens.” (Burlingame)
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At present, one of the fiercest debates concerning the Patriot Act is centered upon the detaining of U.S. citizens, and labeling them “enemy combatants.”
The term “enemy combatant” carries great importance. It means that the captive is exempt from the international laws of war. Under these laws, there exist two classifications, lawful or unlawful combatants. For example, in WWII, German soldiers captured in uniform fighting for Germany against the Allies would be classed as lawful combatants. Unlawful combatants are fighters who claim allegiance to no country, but, perhaps, to a cause. Therefore, terrorists are designated as unlawful combatants in that they wear no uniform and represent a cause rather than a country. “Enemy combatants” are denied legal council and contact with family members. Therefore, when Hamdi and Pedilla were designated as “enemy combatants,” it was a significant step in curtailing the civil rights afforded to American citizens under the Constitution. (Cassel)
The term “enemy combatant” plays a large role in the detainment of three American citizens accused of terrorism. The cases involve John Walker Lindh, Yasser Hamdi, and Jose Padilla. The circumstances differ in many ways but there are also striking similarities. Both Lindh and Hamdi were captured on foreign soil, in Afghanistan, while Pedilla was captured in an American city, Chicago, to be exact. All were detained for extended periods of time without access to legal defense. All allege they were subjected to abusive treatment at the hands of their American captors. Lindh was confined in an offshore navy vessel, often bound and caged in a cargo container.
Lindh and Hamdi were accused of fighting with Taliban units against the United States. Padilla was arrested on suspicion of being part of a conspiracy to possibly detonate a “dirty bomb” in an American city. Neither Padilla nor Hamdi have ever been officially charged with a crime, but they are being held as “enemy combatants.”
Many civil rights lawyers, outraged by what they perceive to be a blatant disregard for the rights of these two U.S. citizens, have managed to get the cases to court. After much legal maneuvering, Hamdi accepted a deal with Government attorneys. The terms of the transaction included that Hamdi would return to Saudi Arabia and give up his U.S. citizenship. Other restrictions were also imposed, which included no traveling outside of Saudi Arabia for the next five years, as well as no traveling to the U.S. for the next ten years.
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Unlike Hamdi, the Jose Padilla case is still making its torturous way through the legal system. Both sides of the argument charge frequent allegations of misconduct against the other.
Lindh was charged with conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens, and two counts of conspiracy to provide material support and resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations, along with other charges. Lindh plea-bargained with the Government and received a twenty-year prison sentence.
During Lindh’s trial, he, his parents, and lawyers vehemently insisted that there was never any proof that Lindh intended to kill Americans or that he was involved in any terrorist activities against the U.S.
Some argue the Government did not charge Lindh harshly enough. Douglas Kmiec, a former dean of Catholic University Law School, criticized Attorney General Ashcroft for not charging Lindh with treason.
In the three afore mentioned cases, there appeared to be little or no consistency in the applications of the PATRIOT Act. For example, the term “enemy combatant” was given to Hamdi and Pedilla, but not to Lindh. Equal inconsistencies are present in all aspects of the cases.
Controversy has swirled around the PATRIOT Act since its very inception, and appears to be steadily increasing. Although both sides of the argument stand firm in their opinions, the balance of the argument seems to be tilting toward weakening the powers granted under the Act.
Just recently, on March 10th 2007, the Washington Post published an article by Dan Eggen and John Solomon titled, “FBI Audit Prompts Calls for Reform.” It stated, “top lawmakers raise the possibility that Congress would seek to curb the Justice Department’s powers, most likely by placing restrictions on the Patriot Act anti-terrorist law.” Democratic New York Senator Charles E. Schumer was among a host of legislators promising investigative hearings. Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, told reporters that Congress may take away some of the authority given to the FBI “since they appear not to be able to know how to use it.”
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These statements, coming from highly respected Democrats as well as Republicans, who certainly have more access to inside information that the ordinary citizen, seem to confirm that a serious misusage of power is taking place. Suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus by President Bush in 2006 gives cause for even greater concern.
The importance of the suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus cannot be overstated. It basically means that a prisoner does not have to be brought before a court of law so it can be determined whether or not that prisoner has been lawfully imprisoned, and, if not, whether he or she should be released. (Longley)
The combined powers of the PATRIOT Act, Homeland Security Act, and the suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus afford the administration with an unprecedented amount of authority. Consequently, there exists the possibility that the nation could become a police state.
The United States was founded on democratic ideals and civil rights. People fought and died to establish this nation of the United States and the ideals and freedom for which it stands. Since the Country’s Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, it has been held up to the rest of the world as the ultimate document standing for democracy. Presently, that claim is being questioned in many parts of the world, as other nations observe the U.S. Government’s blatant misuse of power toward its own citizens. In order for America to regain its once respected role in the international community, and restore civil rights to its own citizens, the PATRIOT Act must be repealed.