Journalism professor, columnist and author Walt Brasch began writing his essential new book, America’s Unpatriotic Acts, shortly after Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act. “By exposure of what the federal government has done to our Constitutional rights during the past four years,” he explains, “I hope the people will fully understand that the claims by the Administration are for the most part not innocent inaccuracies, but blatant lies.”
Below is a brief Q&A I recently conducted with Brasch.
MZ: How long do you think it took for the Act’s authors to satisfy the acronym “USA PATRIOT Act” with “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act”?
WB: Other than being masters of political spin, the one thing the Bush Administration is good at is creating cutesy acronyms for programs that invade our privacy and shred our civil liberties while doing little to prevent terrorism. There was Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information Prevention System), TIAP (originally Total Information Awareness Program, but renamed Terrorist Information Awareness Program to make it seem the government was after terrorists not American citizens), Computer-Assisted Passenger Profiling System II (CAPPS) that targeted all airline passengers, and MATRIX, the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, which was recently shut down when too many states refused to participate in a program that was too costly and which seemed to mimic Big Brother. But, the glory of this acronym-happy administration is the USA PATRIOT Act. If the administration put even a tenth of the time into worrying about the homeless, the unemployed, those without adequate health care, and the environment that it did to create the Act and its acronym, there would not be as much work for us liberal columnists.
MZ: You say “liberal” columnists, but, as you know, suppressing civil rights has a long history in America . . . from the Alien and Sedition Act to the Espionage and Sedition Act right up to Clinton’s Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. What is it about the PATRIOT Act that is unique?
WB: As you rightly point out, there have always been civil liberties violations, and it was done under all administrations. However, this administration has repeatedly used 9/11 to justify even greater restrictions upon Constitutional rights, while making it appear it is doing its best to protect Americans from terrorists. The PATRIOT Act violates at least six amendments (1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 14th), and targets not just terrorists but every American citizen as well. Under authority of this Act, the government can invade your home, seize material, and never let you know it was there. With virtually no judicial oversight, it can seize school, medical, computer, hotel, airline, and banking records, even if there is no evidence to justify such a search. It can grab library and bookstore records, and silence librarians and booksellers from ever mentioning the government was there. Frankly, researching, writing, or even buying a book about Osama bin Laden doesn’t mean that you’re a terrorist, but you are a suspect for the flimsiest reasons. Under the way the current administration can enforce the PATRIOT Act, Americans are all considered guilty until proven innocent. But, what is most important is that under authority of the PATRIOT Act, Congress ceded far more power to the executive branch than either Congress or the Judiciary. Even when the Supreme Court ruled against the Bush administration in two major cases a year ago, the Bush administration figured out ways to delay and modify the Court’s decisions, something for which the Founding Fathers would have been appalled.
MZ: So what do we say to those who believe the hype . . . those who trust that the PATRIOT Act is THE reason why there hasn’t been another 9/11 in this country?
WB: Trying to boost support for the PATRIOT Act, President Bush has been claiming in several post-election campaign appearances that the Act has been responsible for more than 400 arrests and 200 convictions of terrorists. However, an analysis by the Washington Post reveals that only 39 persons were convicted of crimes related to terrorism; most were convicted of immigration law violations. A better way to look at that would be that half of those arrested were not guilty of terrorism or that the government could not find enough evidence to pursue a case. Overall, conviction is a dismal 9.75 percent of those arrested. Now, let’s look at those 39. The average sentence was less than a year, which puts it in the misdemeanor — not felony — sentencing guidelines. Of those 39, Bush and the Justice Department have repeatedly referred to the conviction of the Lackawanna Six, who were arrested near Buffalo, N.Y. The six young Yemeni-Americans readily acknowledged they had traveled to an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and had heard a speech by Osama bin Laden. There was no evidence they ever participated in a terrorist threat or attack, or had plans to do so. A reality is that every one of those 39 convictions could have been obtained under laws that existed prior to the passage of the PATRIOT Act. And, we still haven’t found Osama bin Laden.
MZ: No Osama . . . but librarians beware. Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has said: “The PATRIOT Act expanded police monitoring and investigation of our libraries and booksellers, greatly increasing the reach of federal authorities.”
WB: The Bush Administration claims there have been no incidents of the government using the controversial Section 215, the right to seize bookstore, library records, and “any tangible item,” and to gag anyone with knowledge of the search. If that is true, then the four years since the Act was first passed would reveal no necessity for that section, which the Administration claims is vital to preserve national security. But about half of the 906 library directors responding to a survey by the Library Research Center of the University of Illinois, in a four month period beginning October 2002, reported federal or local law enforcement personnel visited their libraries and requested them to turn over data about their patrons; 219 of them voluntarily turned over data, 225 did not. The Department of Justice later claimed that FBI agents contacted only 50 libraries in the course of “criminal” investigations, and that the number of investigations under the guise of terrorism was classified. The Administration can’t claim it has never violated the rights of citizens, yet refuse to release any evidence indicating if that is true or not. The reality is that the PATRIOT Act has NOT been responsible for preventing another terrorist attack upon America. It HAS been responsible for innumerable violations of the Constitutional rights of Americans.
Mickey Z. is the author of several books including the soon-to-be-released
There Is No Good War: The Myths of World War II (Vox Pop) and 50 American
Revolutions You’re Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism (Disinformation Books). He can be found on the Web at