The recent national security debate in Congress over renewal of the Patriot Act was more about the constitution and individual freedom (not to mention presidential politics) than it was about the threat of terrorism.
One of the more interesting – if not convoluted – congressional debates in recent history dominated the Senate last week. At stake was the expiration of key parts of the USA Patriot Act. Driven by the heat and passion of the time, the Act was written, debated, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, less than six weeks after the 911 attack.
The stated purpose of the law was to give government the tools necessary to provide security against future terrorist acts. But this hastily drafted and complicated legislation contains over 1,000 different sections, making it doubtful that many Congressmen or Senators and even fewer constituents read or understood the scope of the law and the broad powers granted to the government. Moreover, even if you didn’t know all the legislative minutia the law entailed, how could anyone be against fighting terrorism or against any flag-waving legislation labeled a “patriot” act?
The seeds for last week’s debate were planted when the law was passed. At that time, enough members of Congress were concerned about the potentially abusive powers this precedent-setting act vested in the executive branch of the government and wisely enacted a provision that it would expire after 10 years. But in 2011 President Obama signed a new law extending the key provisions of the Patriot Act for another four years. It was the imminent expiration (June 1) of these key sections of the act that embroiled Congress in the current debate.
Despite the concerns of some, what most in government expected (wanted) was an unquestioning part-and-parcel rubber-stamp renewal of the Patriot Act; what it got instead was a rancorous party-splitting debate. After six years of spiteful acrimony it was surreal to witness President Obama and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell joined at the hip, pushing the legislation along. Maybe even more bizarre was to see liberal Democrats coming together with Tea Party Republicans in Congress to support extension of the Patriot Act.
The threat of an imminent catastrophic terrorist attack – maybe even greater than 911 – was used by those in favor of the Patriot Act renewal to cloak the debate in a discussion of national security and in an effort to intimidate those who opposed the most intrusive elements of the security law. The arguments of those who favored renewal were simple: They were interested only in protecting the safety and security of Americans against terrorist attack. On the other hand, those who wanted to reign in the most intrusive sections of the Patriot Act, such as the unrestrained NSA collection of “bulk data” on every American, argued that this activity was an unwarranted invasion of privacy and a fundamental violation of the fourth amendment (a guarantee of privacy and unreasonable search and seizure) to the Constitution.
By far the most interesting irony in the debate was the position taken by so many Republicans. Those in the Republican Party position themselves as great stalwarts against the evils of big government and any infringement on individual freedoms. Yet here was the vast majority of Republicans pushing for bigger government and increased government involvement in the lives of all Americans. And it was surprising how vociferous was their condemnation of the few fellow Republicans who were against renewal of the Patriot Act. Correct me if my logic fails, but I just don’t see how the Republican call for adding thousands of government workers to spy on Americans, significantly increasing military spending and becoming militarily involved in new wars around the world is the recipe for a smaller government.
Is It Abuse Of Power If The Law Grants The Power To Abuse Power?
Legality aside, it was the release of millions of secret government documents by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden that complicated the rubberstamp renewal of the Patriot Act. When these previously secret documents reached the light of day they offered clear evidence that under the guise of national security the government abused the powers granted in the Patriot Act to commit illegal acts and violate the constitutional rights of all Americans. (This raises an interesting philosophical question: Is it a crime to expose a crime?)
The debate over the renewal of certain sections of the Patriot Act became rancorous because, after 14 years of living under its provisions, people had become aware of, and concerned about, the government’s rampant and secret abuse of the powers granted by the act and the resultant threat to basic individual rights and privacy. Although few citizens are knowledgeable about Section 215 of the law, they chafed at its result that allowed the government to collect and store any and all private electronic communications of all Americans, with no probable cause or transparent court authority.
Let’s Understand What We Are Talking About Here
The real debate – or at least it should be – is not about elements of the Patriot Act, but about the conflicting choice between a desire for freedom and a need for security. Which is more important – freedom or security? Freedom and security are both positive elements, but like the positive poles of magnets, they repel each other. The more freedom desired the less security that must be accepted. The more security that is desired the more freedom that must be sacrificed.
Those who wholeheartedly support the Patriot Act argue that some loss of privacy, individual freedom and unconstitutional acts are justified in the name of increased security needed to prevent a terrorist attack. Others argue that any acts that erode – even in the slightest way – privacy, individual freedoms and the rights granted in the Constitution begin a journey down a path that would ultimately do more damage to America than any terrorist attack.
There can be some reasoned and responsible balance between freedom and security, but it is a discussion that must be open and transparent. The fundamental problem with the Patriot Act is that it grants to the government, rather than the people and the constitution, the power to decide the balance between freedom and security—and to do so in secret.
What Are We – Frogs?
What is most disconcerting about the Patriot Act debate over freedom vs. security is that once we accept the premise that giving up even a small bit of our privacy, individual rights and Constitutional protections in the name of national security, we start down a road that goes only one way.
You know the story of boiling frogs. It is said that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out. But if you place the frog in warm water and then gradually bring the water to a boil, the frog will contentedly accept its fate. Our current government leaders may be well-intended in their focus on protecting Americans from the terrorist threat. But when the price to be paid for this security is the gradual erosion of privacy and Constitutional rights, we have to ask ourselves and our leaders whether it is worth the risk of what could happen in the future. Today’s leaders may be good, honest people, but what if the leaders of tomorrow are not?
Giving any government the power to be abusive is an invitation for that government to be abusive. It all comes down to asking: Is security against the possibility of terrorist attacks worth the risk of gradually giving up freedoms that could lead to tyranny (and loss of all freedoms) in the future? And if you don’t think that could happen, just ask the frog.