(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—On Oct. 26, 2001 President George Bush signed the USA Patriot Act into law with overwhelming approval from the United States House and Senate. The multi-faceted law, which was in response to the terrorist attacks of 9-11 was rumored to have only been read by a few members of Congress and the rest just passed it due to the political consequences of saying no. With 10 years on the books and President Obama extending certain parts of the legislation we have to ask the question, are we any safer today than we were 10 years ago?
The specifics of the USA Patriot act are not that hard to understand, a simple perusal of the web will show you the main laws enacted that exponentially increase the federal government’s ability to observe and spy on American citizens. The law also allows the government almost unfettered power to prosecute those who are seen as threats to national security no matter how vague or inconsistent the definition of that threat may be. Other stipulations, giving the FBI and CIA less regulation in seeking private information about those living in the United States, especially foreigners are seldom talked about since most Americans are only concerned if our rights are violated not anyone else’s. However with all of these new laws in effect there is still debate as to whether or not any true good has been accomplished or if Bush simply created an immense power grab for federal authorities that no president would ever give up the chance to use.
On the one hand there are those that would argue that since we haven’t had another successful terrorist attack on the scale of 9-11 in 10 years that the Patriot Act has been effective. Of course the basic counter to that is we hadn’t had any attacks similar in scale or effect of 9-11 in the previous 100 years either without such violations of civil liberties. However an even more basic assessment of whether or not the Patriot Act has done Americans any good is to simply look at how many attacks have been foiled in the last decade in large part due to Patriot Act legislation. It is here that the main flaws of the law appear. For all of the increased wire tapping, surveillance and deportation that the law has allowed none of these new powers would have likely stopped the 9-11 attacks and most of the attempted terror attacks since, the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber and the like.
Most of the domestic terror plots that have been stopped in recent years are not due to the Patriot Act per se, but due to the increased diligence and information sharing that was deemed necessary after the terror attacks. Had the FBI, CIA and NSA shared information on a more regular basis, let alone had Condolezza Rice actually done her job, perhaps all or parts of the 9-11 terror plot could have been prevented. Our federal agents were doing their jobs just fine for years before they had the ability to legally snoop public libraries to find out what books we check out or what movies we ordered off of Time Warner cable.
So if the USA Patriot Act hasn’t made federal work any more successful, and hasn’t necessarily made the nation any safer what has it accomplished positively? The single greatest impact of the act has been the increase in border and coastal security in the United States, which has solved one problem and led to others. This is an overall good thing. On the other hand increased border security is one of the reasons why the Mexican Drug Wars have started. Border security has become so good in the United States that Mexican drug dealers have actually had to start selling more drugs in Mexico rather than simply ship to the U.S. While it certainly isn’t our fault that the Mexican government isn’t capable of solving their drug problems it’s important to note that it was our policy to improve American safety that has ultimately helped to destabilize one of our closest neighbors.
The anniversary of the USA Patriot Act will not be a major issue for most Americans who are more concerned with the economy and the election to think about things like civil liberties and our constitutional rights. However, I would strongly advise that you take the time to look up what this law meant and how it affects your life. Just make sure you don’t stay at the library researching too long, they might be watching you.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)