Recent revelations that the National Security
Agency has conducted broad surveillance of American citizens' e-mails and phone
calls raise serious questions about the proper role of government in a free
society. This is an important and healthy debate, one that too often goes ignored
Public concerns about the misnamed PATRIOT Act are having an impact, as the
Senate last week refused to reauthorize the bill for several years. Instead,
Congress will be back in Washington next month to consider many of the Act's
most harmful provisions.
Of course most governments, including our own, cannot resist the temptation
to spy on their citizens when it suits government purposes. But America is supposed
to be different. We have a mechanism called the Constitution that is supposed
to place limits on the power of the federal government. Why does the Constitution
have an enumerated powers clause, if the government can do things wildly beyond
those powers such as establish a domestic spying program? Why have a
4th Amendment, if it does not prohibit government from eavesdropping on phone
calls without telling anyone?
We're told that Sept. 11 changed everything, that new government powers like
the PATRIOT Act are necessary to thwart terrorism. But these are not the most
dangerous times in American history, despite the self-flattery of our politicians
and media. This is a nation that expelled the British, saw the White House burned
to the ground in 1814, fought two world wars, and faced down the Soviet Union.
Sept. 11 does not justify ignoring the Constitution by creating broad new federal
police powers. The rule of law is worthless if we ignore it whenever crises
The administration assures us that domestic surveillance is done to protect
us. But the crucial point is this: Government assurances are not good enough
in a free society. The overwhelming burden must always be placed on government
to justify any new encroachment on our liberty. Now that the emotions of Sept.
11 have cooled, the American people are less willing to blindly accept terrorism
as an excuse for expanding federal surveillance powers. Conservatives who support
the Bush administration should remember that powers we give government today
will not go away when future administrations take office.
Some senators last week complained that the PATRIOT Act is misunderstood. But
it's not the American public's fault nobody knows exactly what the PATRIOT Act
does. The Act contains over 500 pages of detailed legalese, the full text of
which was neither read nor made available to Congress in a reasonable time before
it was voted on which by itself should have convinced members to vote
against it. Many of the surveillance powers authorized in the Act are not clearly
defined and have not yet been tested. When they are tested, court challenges
are sure to follow. It is precisely because we cannot predict how the PATRIOT
Act will be interpreted and used in future decades that we should question it