With the nation mired in a global pandemic and massive protests against police brutality, Congress is silently moving forward with passing the “USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act” which is, in reality, a renewal of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act passed in 2001. Enacted after the September 11 attacks, the PATRIOT Act gave the United States federal government broad powers to investigate its own citizens without the need for warrants on the grounds of “national security.” While some argue that the Act may have been somewhat justified immediately after 9/11, its continuation is a travesty to the rights of U.S. citizens and poses a high risk of deliberate misuse by the Trump Administration. It should not be reauthorized without massive changes.
The PATRIOT Act was originally passed with sweeping bipartisan support within two months of the 9/11 attacks. Not all of the provisions in the PATRIOT Act were, or are, controversial; many actually helped streamline the government’s ability to fight against terrorism. The Act allows the government “to use the tools that were already available to investigate organized crime and drug trafficking,” and also permits the government to streamline cooperation between government agencies. However, the PATRIOT Act also contains many provisions that gave the government excessive, unchecked power to spy on its own citizens. These provisions have become more controversial with time.
Arguably, the most contentious part is Section 215, which allows the government to ask businesses for any records about anyone who may be involved in terrorism. Documents leaked in 2013 by former national intelligence contractor Edward Snowden showed that the government had used Section 215 for years in order to execute mass surveillance over the populace, obtaining phone records from millions of Americans’ phone calls. While Congress restricted Section 215 in 2015 and banned the mass surveillance of data, it left loopholes that the government could still exploit.
Other controversial provisions are Section 206, which “allows the government to tap every device a person uses — landline, cell phone, laptop, etc,” with a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), and Section 207, which “allows the government to surveil someone who might be engaged in international terrorism,” regardless of if they are actually connecting to a terrorist organization. These sections have a high risk of abuse, as the FISA court usually defers to the government. As of 2018, the court has approved the vast majority of applications and their requests for surveillance; for instance, in 2017 the FISA court rejected only 76 out of the 1,614 applications made that year. Since FISA began, the court has approved a total of 99.89% of applications for surveillance. The government could lie about the nature of their inquiry and the FISA court likely wouldn’t lift a finger. Despite the small improvements made to the PATRIOT Act since its inception, it still contains dangerous potential for surveillance and invasions of privacy.
There is a high potential for misuse of the PATRIOT Act’s provisions if it is renewed, especially against left wing popular movements. President Donald Trump has declared Antifa a “terrorist organization,” under the guise that antifascists are to blame for looting during protests. However, this label is overly broad and fundamentally flawed; no one charged with rioting in the protests has any ties with Antifa, Antifa has never killed anybody, and lacks a clear organization. In fact, Antifa is an ideology of antifascism, not an organization. Regardless of the merits of the classification, the Trump administration could theoretically use Sections 215 and 207 to monitor US citizens solely because they seem to affiliate with Antifa or antifascist ideals. Trump has shown a willingness to use the resources of the federal government to aid his re-election campaign; he was impeached for withholding US aid to Ukraine to get dirt on his presumed political rival. It is not much of a stretch to believe he could commandeer the PATRIOT Act to investigate left wing groups for perceived political gain. Since the FISA court depends largely on the government’s interpretation of terrorism, Trump could attempt to declare the Black Lives Matter movement, or other organizations he doesn’t agree with, terrorist organizations. While the FISA court would likely be much more skeptical of such requests, its proceedings are highly secretive without public oversight and are thus more susceptible to such partisan misuse. All in all, the high potential for abuse reflects the extraordinary amount of unchecked power the PATRIOT Act has given the government.
The most controversial portions of the Act expired this year in mid-March, and Congress intends to reauthorize them with small adjustments. Congress was on track to finalize the renewal until the country was hit with the double punch of a pandemic and a mass movement against police brutality. The USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act, the House’s proposed reauthorization bill spearheaded by Representative Jerry Nadler (D-NY), only includes a few, very modest proposals, and the Senate later passed an amendment by Senators Lee and Leahy that allows there to be independent, outside advisors to the FISA court. While these amendments are a good first step, they clearly are not the sweeping reforms needed to make the PATRIOT Act acceptable. The renewal will still allow the government to collect citizens’ internet search and browsing data, without needing a warrant. More oversight, accountability, and transparency are needed at the very least before this measure should be pushed forward by Congress.
The PATRIOT Act was originally enacted in a time of great duress for the country, and the direness of the times is reflected in the law itself. However, 9/11 is now 19 years behind us, and the law has improved little. Hindsight is 20/20— in its nearly two decades of existence, the PATRIOT Act has failed to show its efficacy. It has, however, allowed the Department of Justice to trample on civil liberties and collect data on millions of innocent Americans under the façade of defending the country. No more should the PATRIOT Act be used as an excuse to violate the civil liberties of the citizens it was written to protect. If the PATRIOT Act is really as important to national security as the Department of Justice claims, then they should be given the option of a heavily re-written PATRIOT Act or none at all.
Sadly, shredding civil liberties is a bipartisan practice in Washington these days, and there is little faith to be had that Congress will have the backbone or the initiative to correct the serious errors in the Act. A government’s job is to protect its citizens, not to spy on them. The government has had almost 20 years to show it could use its immense powers responsibly. It has shown it is not to be trusted with such unchecked authority. There should be no debate that the sweeping powers given to the government ought to be restrained, or taken away completely.
Sam Husemann is a senior in high school and writes political opinion pieces for the Next Generation Politics blog. He enjoys studying politics and U.S. government from Congress to his local city hall. When he’s not writing, he’s usually reading, thinking, or cooking. You can find him on Instagram as @husemannsam