Sometime in the future, when historians write the definitive analysis of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, they will talk about the day freedom died in America.
Freedom took a hit on that day, but it died on the operating table 45 days later – on October 26 – the day Congress passed, without reading, an onerous piece of legislation called the USA Patriot Act.
While many Americans saw 9/11 as a national tragedy, others saw it as a golden political opportunity to run roughshod over the constitution and strip away the protections and freedoms that defined this country for the last 225 years.
For the power-mad administration of President George W. Bush, that dark day became manna from heaven, a chance to seize power on a scale previously thought unthinkable.
From the ashes of that day rose the Patriot Act, the single-most dangerous piece of legislation ever devised by an American politician, passed by Congress or signed into law by a President. In 342 pages, the act dismantled the Constitution, wiped out due process and eliminated the traditional privacy protections of all Americans.
In a textbook case on how to hijack the legislative process, the bill passed by Congress on October 26, 2001, was not the one studied and approved by committees in both the House and Senate. Just before the bill came to a vote, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft substituted a new bill, one that nearly every member of Congress later admitted they had not read. Ashcroft’s bill went far beyond the scope of the originally-proposed legislation, giving his Department of Justice unprecedented powers to wiretap Americans, spy on their banking and travel records and hold prisoners incommunicado without counsel.
By the time most got around to reading the act, it was already the law of the land.
“The events of September 11 convinced overwhelming majorities in Congress that law enforcement and national security officials needed new legal tools to fight terrorism,” says John Podesta, White House Chief of Staff from 1998 until 2001. “But many aspects of the bill increased the opportunity for law enforcement and the intelligence community to return to an era where they monitored and sometimes harassed individuals who were merely exercising their First Amendment rights. Nothing that occurred on September 11 mandated that we return to such an era.”
The extreme powers granted by the bill angers Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, civil libertarians and laws & order types. Former Congressman Bob Barr, a conservative Republican, joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union to block reauthorization of the act. Rep. Butch Otter, conservative Republican from Idaho, joined up with Rep. Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent from Vermont, to call for the repeal of sections of the act.
“It was Thomas Jefferson who said, ‘In questions of political power, speak to me not of confidence in men, but bind them down from mischief with the chains of a Constitution,’” Otter says. “That mischief is what we’re seeing today and could see tomorrow.”
While the Patriot Act came out of the Bush administration, it became law because a shell-shocked Congress passed it without question. Democrats and Republicans share the blame for passing a law they had not read.
“The Patriot Act was passed in a blind rush, and in that rush to judgment, Congress trampled some important civil liberties,” said California Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee. “Justice is really supposed to be blind, but lawmakers shouldn’t be. We need to foresee the consequences of our actions.”
When Congress returned from its month-long August recess, reauthorization of the Patriot Act sits at the top of their agenda. The Bush administration not only wants the act renewed but proposes expanding the federal government’s police state powers. So far, too many members of Congress appear willing to look the other way and forget the Constitution.
They appear ready to, once again, let fear replace reason. When that happens, freedom becomes just another word for everything to lose.