We all remember the scenes: Iraq administrator Paul Bremer announcing We got him. Then the images of a disheveled Saddam Hussein being examined by a military doctor. All striking and impressive. Also distracting.
While we were all focused on the capture of Saddam, President George W. Bush quietly signed into law some provisions of Patriot Act II that further eroded our liberties. No national news media reported it. The only news organization to report this action in December of last year was the San Antonio Currant.
The Texas newspaper noted this billtitled the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004was signed on a Saturday, a nearly unprecedented practice, and quite effective at sneaking the measure in under the radar while the nation and the media were focused on Iraq.
Few Americans realized, either then or now, that the FBI had just been given expanded powers to snoop through their financial records, even if they are not suspected of any crime. The bill also increased the power of the executive branch.
These increased powers were hidden in the intelligence act, a massive piece of legislation that finances all the intelligence activities of the federal government. Included in this bill was a simple, but insidious definition of a financial institution. That term formerly meant banks, but now it encompasses car dealers, stockbrokers, insurance agencies, credit card companies, jewelers, airlines, the U.S. Post Office and any business whose cash transactions have a high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax, or regulatory matters.
Congress passed this bill sometime around Thanksgiving, 2003. The Senate, with its usual honesty and courage, passed it on a voice vote to avoid any record that might establish individual accountability.
At the same time, the Bush administration is boosting provisions of the original USA Patriot Act which gave the FBI the power to get client records from banks simply by asking for the records with a National Security Letter. The law does not require the FBI to go before a judge to get a court order, nor to show probable cause, meaning the bureau has reason to believe the individual or individuals involved may be engaging in criminal or terrorist activity. The record shows that most of the recent uses of the Patriot Act have not been in terrorism cases, but in ordinary domestic crime investigations.
The cute little wrinkle with the National Security Letter is that it contains a gag order, barring any financial institution from telling its clients that their records have been turned over to the FBI. If the bank or other financial institution violates the gag order, it faces criminal penalties. Another nice provision is that the FBI is no longer required to inform Congress as to how many times they have used these provisions.
Backers of the Patriot Actchiefly the neo-conservative element in the governmentclaim the new law is needed to stop future terrorist attacks on the U.S. mainland.
Proponents argue that these new powers permit the FBI to be expeditious and efficient in responding to any new threats.
Professor Robert Summers, who teaches international law and directs the new Center for Terrorism Law at St. Marys University, said: We dont go to war with terrorists as we went to war with the Germans or the North Vietnamese. If we apply old methods of following the money, we will not be successful. We need to meet them on an even playing field to avoid another disaster.
Opponents of the Patriot Act and its expansion cite safeguards such as judicial oversight and the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable search and seizure, as vital to preventing abuses of such power. Chip Berlet, a historian of American political repression and a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, said: Theres a reason these protections were put into place. It has been shown that if you give [these agencies] this power they will abuse it. For any investigative agency, once you tell them that they must make sure they protect the country from subversives, it inevitably gets translated into a program to silence dissent.
Objectors to more power grants say the FBI already has all the tools it needs to halt crime and terrorism. Patrick Filyk, an attorney and chapter president of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: The only thing the act accomplishes is the removal of judicial oversight and the transfer of more power to law enforcement agents.
Increasing the powers of the Patriot Act is a win for Bushs strategy of secrecy and stealth in order to boost his own power. Shortly before the start of the invasion of Iraq, the Center for Public Integrity got hold of a draft of a complete expansion of the Patriot Act, known as Patriot Act II, compiled by the staff of Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The timing was suspect. It looked very much like the administration was waiting for the war to get underway to introduce Patriot Act II and use the crisis to zip it through Congress with little or no public debate.
But the leak of the proposed law and the resulting backlash from the public thwarted Bushs strategy. Ashcroft and his crew then took the new law apart and added it piecemeal to other legislation. By redefining the term financial institution and appending it to the intelligence bill the Bush administration and its congressional allies were able to avoid public hearings and congressional debate of expansion of the Patriot Act.
Even some of those who support this move were concerned about those tactics. Its a problem that some of these riders that are added on may not receive the scrutiny that we would like to see, said Professor Summers.
Bush and his lieutenants still have not answered key questions about this action. If these powers are really necessary why did they have to be sneaked by to avoid public debate? Could they not withstand public scrutiny? If these powers are truly in the public interest why all the secrecy and sneakiness in getting them passed?
We will be told, of course, that these new powers are necessary for national security; but like so many other moves by this administration, they seem to be designed more for Bush security. What other power grabs may lurk in the near future and what other contrived distractions may be planned to sneak them by?