Patriot Act
June 30, 2004 4:43 PM   Subscribe

So I've just come back from a meeting with a US Senator, and during the conversation, he went to great lengths to defend the US Patriot Act ...

... and though I've yet heard an argument that swayed me to think that the act was anything more than a naked power grab, the good Senator did raise an interesting point: he stated that the US Patriot Act in many instances brought to domestic counter-terrorism efforts tools that had long been available to other forms of investigations (namely drug trafficking).

He gave a case in point: an FBI agent working on a drug case wants to tap the cell phone of a suspect, so he obtains the standard warrants... as the suspect moves about the country, the agent doesn't need a judge in each new jurisdiction to sign-off on the warrant; the good Senator maintains that the same agent (prior to the US Patriot Act) working on a counter-terrorism case, wishing to tap the cell phone of a suspected terrorist, would have to get warrants from each jurisdiction as the suspect moved across the country.

The argument, in brief, was that US Patriot Act merely brought to counter-terrorism investigations the tools available in so many other areas of specialty.

So here's my question: I'm curious what our collective mind might think of an act that standardized tools across specialties (minus all the Orwellian trappings of the current US Patriot Act). What are our concerns? What might our praise be?
posted by silusGROK to Law & Government (18 answers total)
Response by poster: (In addition to drug trafficking, the good Senator also mentioned mafia-related investigations.)
posted by silusGROK at 4:47 PM on June 30, 2004

surely if the mafia's covered that Al-Quaeda's covered. Terrorism's crime, and it's organized.
posted by Flat Feet Pete at 4:52 PM on June 30, 2004

It's a giant act. It wouldn't be too difficult to zero in on one aspect and say -- well, this is good. But, to do that while ignoring all the other crap that is not good (or at least could be potentially bad) is a merely a rhetorical trick. And, you can't view the act without its Orwellian trappings because the law has those trappings in spades.
posted by willnot at 5:00 PM on June 30, 2004

The act IS Orwellian trappings. Making police work an inefficient project is a Good Thing, just as is the case with democracy in general. Allowing efficiencies to streamline the exercise of power means that the power is exercised with greater efficiency.

When an investigator determines that a suspect is possibly associated with terrorism, and applies the act to gain access to the streamlining, doesn't that create a mechanism that strongly encourages the enforcement or investigation person to see terrorism everywhere?

For example, one might argue that I am enhancing the climate of terror by criticizing the Patriot Act in this post, and that may well be sufficient cover to invoke the Act upon my head. I feel directly threatened by this legislation, my middle-class white maleness notwithstanding.

Furthermore: Anyone have any evidence of Kerry's unambiguous repeal Patriot intention? 'Cuz I've looked, and I can't find it, and that makes me VERY UNHAPPY.
posted by mwhybark at 5:03 PM on June 30, 2004

Whoa -- for a moment, I read your 4:47 pm comment as "mefi-related investigations." Heh.
posted by davidmsc at 5:06 PM on June 30, 2004

and isn't the Patriot Act not supposed to be used to indict people for drug offenses and things unrelated to terrorism? Wasn't it sold to Congress and to us as specifically for terrorism?
posted by amberglow at 5:09 PM on June 30, 2004

That is Section 219. There are lots of other sections. Lots and lots. With scarey titles.

Also, note that the generic rule that was amended says:

"(2) a magistrate judge with authority in the district has authority to issue a warrant for a person or property outside the district if the person or property is located within the district when the warrant is issued but might move or be moved outside the district before the warrant is executed; and"

Nothing particular about mafia or drugs. The new addition is:

"(3) a magistrate judge—in an investigation of domestic terrorism or international terrorism (as defined in 18 U.S.C. § 2331)—having authority in any district in which activities related to the terrorism may have occurred, may issue a warrant for a person or property within or outside that district."

It seems like part 2 would be sufficient as long as you could identify the terrorist in one jurisdiction at one point in time. I don't think that's a severe limitation.
posted by smackfu at 5:09 PM on June 30, 2004

instances brought to domestic counter-terrorism efforts tools that had long been available to other forms of investigations (namely drug trafficking).

My concern is with the broad/vague definition of terrorism, more than how the act stands up against the war on drugs.
posted by scarabic at 5:23 PM on June 30, 2004

Specific details of the Patriot Act aside, and getting back to your actual question ("what our collective mind might think of an act that standardized tools across specialties"):

Terrible, terrible idea. This "tool standardization" would, in practice, mean simply taking the most restrictive, draconian laws from each area, and extending them to the rest of society. Lowest common denominator law.

Sex offender registries for example. Get convicted of a sex crime, and you have to report yourself to the police and the community wherever you go, for the rest of your life. Awful, anti-everything-America-stands-for law, in my opinion, but it's in the books because nobody wants to go on record as standing up for the rights of sex offenders.

The drug property confiscation laws are another great example. Nobody wants to be painted as pro-drug dealer, so we've got some really oppressive, unbalanced laws in that area. Even the traveling wiretap you mention has always seemed kind of iffy to me: really seems to bypass the whole point of requiring judicial overview, if the feds can just go pick another judge in another jurisdiction.

Now, if you want to turn the question upside-down, and say, no new law shall be passed that targets certain sectors of the public with greater constraints or penalties than other sectors -- that I could get behind. But starting with, well, we've got law X that got passed because it only affected scary axe-murdering terrorist paedophiles, why don't we apply that law to everybody now? No thanks. That's Orwell time.
posted by ook at 5:30 PM on June 30, 2004

Response by poster: (Thanks, ook, for getting back to the question.)
posted by silusGROK at 5:47 PM on June 30, 2004

My main concern would be that the "terrorism" label is one easily thrown around. It's pretty obvious when someone's carrying a load of cocaine or marijuana around that they are trafficing drugs. But when is someone comitting "terrorism"? That is a tougher call.

Also, no judge where the suspect is located will grant the warrant? No problem! Let's see, he was visting his grandma in a different state last month, and he may have committed some terrorist act while he was there. Bingo, we can now tap him in any jurisdiction.
posted by falconred at 5:54 PM on June 30, 2004

What do we think of "standardizing tools across specialties?" It depends entirely on the tool and the specialties. How similar are the specialties, and do those similarities justify the same tools?

Locksmiths are tightly regulated in some states; they have to ask for ID before letting you into your house, and have to keep records of what houses they've worked on. That's a law enforcement tool, basically. Should we standardize it to every other type of handyman who might work on your house, like plumbers and carpenters? No, the similarities between the specialties don't justify the same tools.

It's easier to get roving wiretaps on suspected drug dealers and mafia figures because those specialties require a level of "organized" crime, and they use new technologies like cell phones to communicate with each other and avoid detection. So, we make it easier to get cell phone roving wiretaps in drug and organized crime investigations. Are investigations of terrorist cells similar enough to justify the same tools? Yeah, quite possibly; terrorists have similar needs to coordinate with each other, and are just as likely to do what they can to use rigid wiretap laws to their advantage in avoiding detection.
posted by profwhat at 5:40 AM on July 1, 2004

Standardized tools across specialties?

Let me get this clear - the US has one of the highest incarceration rates EVER, thanks in part due to the completerly misguided, by now out of control, and clearly lost war on drugs - and the way to go is apply those same techniques and principles to other crimes?

You have got to be kidding me, mate.
posted by magullo at 5:59 AM on July 1, 2004

I'm curious what our collective mind might think of an act that standardized tools across specialties (minus all the Orwellian trappings of the current US Patriot Act).

Disclaimer: I'm a librarian and I freaking hate the PATRIOT Act.

It's almost impossible, to my mind, to remove the Orwellian trappings from this law. "Tools across specialties" is, to me a way to say "circumventing the normal checks and balances that were put in place to protect the rights of citizens" Basically what USAPA does is -- while your Senator is technically correct perhaps -- allows much more domestic surveillance, enforcement, mandatory reporting, and whatnot, of the kind that our international intelligence gathering folks at the CIA have always had. US citizens were usually free from the whole "guilty until proven innocent" crap that we tend to foist on non-citizens [which is a whole 'nother story] and there are laws to protect citizens from law enforcement acting like we're guilty. There are always good examples of how USAPA saved a small kid from a burning building because the feds could tap his phone without a warrant [it's a 300 page bill, I bet your Senator hasn't even read it all] but that doesn't mean that, on balance, it's not a massive power grab by Big Brother Ashcroft, Inc.
posted by jessamyn at 6:55 AM on July 1, 2004

Just so we're clear, its not the US Patriot act or the PATRIOT act. Its the USA PATRIOT act. The whole thing is an acronym, including the USA, and it doesn't stand for United States of America. It stands for: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.

anyway, those investigating drug trafficers, namely the FBI, have special provisions alotted them because they are federal agencies. Likewise for mafia-related investigations, which are also alotted special priveledges because of the RICO statutes. Should those investigating terrorists have similar priveledges and advantages similar to those alotted in RICO in order to expedite arrests? Yes. Should it go this far? No. RICO doesn't provide that everyone can be considered a racketeer until proven otherwise, like USA PATRIOT does for terrorism.

To the larger question: should law enforcement investigative standards and burden of evidence for infringement upon rights ("probable cause," etc.) be standardized? No. Law enforcement, I believe, is something best decided on a case-by-case basis. Standards lead to inflexibility, and inflexibility is analogous to insecurity. Every law enforcement agency we have: local, state, FBI, Secret Service, Marshalls, MPs, and so on has a seperate mission, and standards for investigation the courts have deemed appropriate to their mission. The courts have just barely started in on USA PATRIOT, and I imagine much of it will be struck down, especially those provisions concerning investigative practice.
posted by ChasFile at 7:44 AM on July 1, 2004

More problematically, the USA PATRIOT act was enacted only a month after 9/11. Two years later, we know that there were some serious breakdowns in communications between law enforcement agencies and between the civilian Air Traffic Control and local military bases.

Instead of roving wiretaps, we need:

(1) rules and procedures that enable ATC operators to call in an Air Force interceptor to investigate large planes that have departed from their flight plan.

(2) well defined domains of operation for the INS, FBI and CIA; solid plans for how to handle areas of overlap.

(3) better fire-escape systems for unusually tall buildings; sufficient structure to withstand aircraft crashes.

According to the WTC commission, ATC operators were afraid to call in Air Force support. When they did, it was too late. An Air Force pilot could have observed non-uniformed pilots on the flight deck, and general chaos throughout the cabin. The ATC operator's fear of the Air Force lead to many unnecessary deaths.

Our inability to track down suspicious characters identified by either the INS, FBI, or CIA when they travel into another agency's domain prevented the terrorists from being ejected from the country for improper documentation. Inter-agency communication is critical here. Only after that communication is in place does it make sense to give these organizations more power.

The Empire State Building survived the impact of a B-25 bomber. The World Trade Center towers burned and fell when hit by a comparable modern-day aircraft. The terrorist-pilots play well as the villian here, but a great deal of responsibility falls on the shoulders of the parties in the design process that allowed the WTC to be built without the original design goal of surviving the impact of a 707.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:18 AM on July 1, 2004

Please cite examples of where the Patriot Act has led to the violation of civil rights. I find the name disturbing, but the reality is that it's probably good law, or at least law that has a low likelyhood of being used nefariously.
posted by ParisParamus at 7:56 PM on July 23, 2004

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