On Friday, December 16, 2005, despite increasing pressure from the White House and its allies, 47 Senators from both parties rejected a cloture motion to limit debate on legislation to reauthorize the Patriot Act, which means that efforts to “fix” the Patriot Act can continue.
Many of the Senators talked about the need to protect ordinary Americans from the misuse of the broad powers of the Patriot Act. Both Democrats and Republicans pointed to evidence that the Patriot Act is being used to gather financial and Internet transaction records of Americans when there is no link between the records and suspected foreign terrorists. The lawmakers also said that they want to renew negotiations so that they can try to find a way to ensure that anti-terrorism efforts are not wasted on Americans who are not connected to suspected terrorists.
The most controversial government powers granted by the Patriot Act include the authorizing of law enforcement agencies to access, in secret, library and medical records, and other personal information during investigations into suspected terrorist activities. The law also allows the government to conduct roving wiretaps involving multiple telephone lines and to wiretap suspected terrorists who may be operating outside of the control of foreign agents or powers.
Opponents of renewing the Patriot Act argue that it is a threat to the civil liberties of the American people, while supporters say that the law is essential to protecting the American people from terrorists.
If the Patriot Act is not renewed, its powers will expire on December 31, 2005, but only for new investigations. After December 31, the Patriot Act will still apply to those who were under investigation before that date.
Lawmakers from both parties said that they did not want the Patriot Act to expire, noting that a temporary extension is possible while the debate with regard to the balance of national security with civil liberties continues. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada urged a three-month extension to allow time for a resolution. Thus far, Republican leaders in Congress and the White House have rejected such a move.
The cloture motion failed just a few hours after the New York Times revealed that President Bush had, without first obtaining permission from the courts, secretly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on people in the United States.
In his Saturday, December 17, 2005 radio address, Mr. Bush defended his decision to authorize the NSA to conduct the secret investigations and fought for the renewal of the Patriot Act, saying both had saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks.
The president said he has reauthorized the NSA eavesdropping program 30 times since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and that he intends to continue it, “for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al Qaeda and related groups.”
Defending the Patriot Act, Mr. Bush said, “In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment.”
Of the failed cloture motion, the president said, “That decision is irresponsible and it endangers the lives of our citizens. The senators who are filibustering must stop their delaying tactics and the Senate must reauthorize the Patriot Act.”
Noting the looming expiration of key provisions of the Patriot Act, Mr. Bush said, “The terrorist threat to our country will not expire in two weeks. The terrorists want to attack America again, and inflict even greater damage than they did on September the 11th.”
In a statement made after Mr. Bush’s radio address, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who supported the original Patriot Act, said that the reauthorization of the Patriot Act was written in ways that fell short of protecting our civil liberties. “Fear mongering and false choices do little to advance either the security or liberty of Americans,” Senator Leahy said, “Instead of playing partisan politics and setting up false attack ads, they should join in trying to improve the law.”
Safe and Free?
Lisa Graves, ACLU Senior Counsel for Legislative Strategy said, “Today’s vote is a beacon of hope for the continuing vitality of our Bill of Rights. As Congress continues its examination of the Patriot Act, it must add common sense protections to preserve our privacy. Americans from across the political spectrum insist that this law be reformed so America will both be safe and free.”
Safe and free? Is that rational? Doesn’t safe or free make more sense? Or is this concept of safety and freedom co-existing just another of the ACLU’s idealistic notions?
In a December 17, 2005 blog post entitled, Life Vs. Liberty, RealTeen of Stop the ACLU writes, “There’s a delicate balance between our National Security and our Civil Liberties, that must be preserved.”
Clearly, the idea that America can be a free country that is also safe from terrorists is not exclusive to the ACLU and its supporters.
RealTeen valiantly attempts to explain this alleged balancing of national security with civil liberties:
“Simply put, our Civil Liberties need to be upheld, but not at the expense of security. If someone can not handle a pat down at a football game, then do they care about the security of others? I would rather be searched and feel safe, than have to worry about a terrorist attack. In the wake of the London bombings, the law enforcement agencies decided to step in in New York and do bag searches, which the ACLU opposed. That was just an example of how Civil Liberties can be adjusted to meet the security needs of the time, without being destroyed.”
Can there ever really be a practical balancing of national security and civil liberties? What sort of scale is it that measures this supposed delicate balance between freedom and safety? Who is, or should be, minding that scale?
In the same article quoted above, RealTeen asks an interesting question: “What’s more important- inconveniencing people as they walk into the subway, or saving lives?”
This question lead me to wonder if merely inconveniencing people with these small infractions against their civil liberties is really enough to stop terrorists who are willing to kill themselves in order to make a point.
Perhaps the mere illusion of having a balance between liberty and security is enough for most people to feel both safe and free. So we try to strike some sort of wishy-washy balance between security and freedom, hoping that a minimum of tyranny will provide a maximum of safety.
However, pragmatism dictates that if we want to be truly safe from terrorist attacks, then we must not have any concerns about civil liberties getting in the way of those efforts. Half-measures, special exceptions and other less-than-iron-clad policies make the fight against terrorism ineffective because they leave too many holes in the net that is supposed to be catching terrorists before they strike.
If terrorist enemies are so determined that they are willing to die, then they are more than adequately determined to find and exploit any holes that were intended to preserve some mythical balancing of civil liberties with public safety.
Then, logically speaking, what are we left with? A really tough choice between tyranny and fear because we cannot realistically have both.
Of course neither one of those options is terribly appealing to the masses who, in varying degrees, value their civil liberties about as much as they value their safety. Thus the cognitive dissonance that is symptomatic of all people, regardless of their political ideologies, who want to have their proverbial cake and eat it, too.
The Choices are Freedom or Safety. Decide.
Think about the choices. If we choose a policy of safety and tyranny, it cannot be realistically limited to preserve civil liberties. The many, very real threats to our national security cannot be stopped with mere inconveniences like pat-downs at football games and bag searches on subways because, to terrorists who are suicidally dedicated to their causes, such weak “security measures” are nothing but minor stumbling blocks that can be easily avoided.
If, however, we choose the policy of freedom and fear instead, we will have to live every day with the possibility of all those very real threats and dangers becoming extremely real, in-your-face catastrophes.
Since we’re already in grave danger because we want to balance freedom with security instead of going all the way and closing all of the security holes that preserve our civil liberties, then we might as well just suck it up and scrap any and all anti-terrorism measures that threaten to curtail our civil liberties.
America is the “land of the free and the home of the brave” because we must be very brave to live in this free country. We must have the fortitude to risk the lesser threat of terrorism in order to stop the greater threat of tyranny. We have to have the courage to fight the scourge of tyranny whenever it threatens our freedom, which means rejecting the false sense of security provided by laws like the Patriot Act.
Many Americans have sacrificed their comfort and safety, and even their lives, for the sake of our civil liberties and the American people should be willing to do the same now, even in the face of very real danger.
UPDATE 1/5/2006 (belated though it may be): Temple Stark has written an excellent article dealing with these issues: 2008: What If Terrorists Attacked The US Again?