Freedom, Security, Neither? An Analysis of the Patriot Act
In 2001, the United States was hit by the September 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent anthrax attacks. In the immediate aftermath, Congress passed the Patriot Act as an attempt to increase national security and protect citizens from future terrorist threats. Yet, in reality, the bill has infringed upon our rights without making us any safer. The Patriot Act empowered the government, including the FBI, CIA, and NSA, to spy on citizens without proper accountability, evidenced by the NSA’s warrantless searches of U.S. citizens in the name of “the war on terror.” Currently, three sections of the Patriot Act are set to expire in June unless Congress renews the provisions. Some Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are pushing to extend the Patriot Act, arguing that the bill is not a causeless infringement upon our liberties; rather, they say that it is a necessary measure to combat present terrorist threats. Other Congressmen, particularly Democrats and Libertarian-leaning Republicans, assert that the Patriot Act is an unconstitutional violation of our right to privacy.
On the whole, warrantless searches, as well as other forms of unchecked government investigation, do not improve national security. It is a waste of a government agency’s time to collect information on anyone without prior reason to believe that the particular individual or group is involved in terrorist activity. What use could the NSA really have to collect data on the phone calls of all Americans? Invading the privacy of all citizens on the off chance that one of them is linked to terrorism is inefficient, to say the least. If the NSA, or any other surveillance agency, wants to use its time effectively, it must investigate the people are who actually likely linked to terrorism. Furthermore if it’s actually the case that the NSA has sufficient reason to believe that someone or some group is linked to terrorism, the agency should be able to obtain a search warrant, in which case the privacy intrusion would actually be legitimate.
The right to privacy is a constitutionally protected right that can only be infringed if the government has reason to believe that someone is involved in criminal activity. Imposing judicial oversight on investigatory agencies prevents such government bodies from unjustly invading the privacy of citizens. Further, requiring agencies to gain judicial approval does not obstruct their ability to properly investigate. For example, if an agency did not have substantial reason to believe someone was guilty, then it wouldn’t even be worth their time to conduct a thorough investigation in the first place. And unless the FBI is in a “24” type situation and a clear terrorist threat needs to be eradicated immediately, then it can easily go through the legitimate process of acquiring a search warrant before violating someone’s privacy.
Perhaps the information held by investigatory agencies is highly sensitive. But, hopefully, we can entrust such information with our nation’s judges. We do, after all, trust them to make decisions on the utmost important legal questions which affect all of us. We should also insist that they protect us from violations of our right to privacy.