Girgenti: Rights? Who needs them?

R. Colin Fly

Does anyone remember the Patriot Act? It was passed shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, carried through Congress on a wave of fear and anger. Even so, many of its provisions were considered so dangerous to the Constitution that members of Congress demanded that the provisions that allowed the most intrusion into the private lives of American citizens have a “sunset clause,” which meant they would expire in 2005. The Patriot Act made it easier for intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on, engage in surveillance of and gain access to financial and computer records of American citizens and nationals.

Senator Orrin Hatch has just written a new law that would repeal the sunset clause, making all those questionable provisions permanent. Worse yet, in order to get the bill passed, supporters are trying to attach to an already scary bill that would, according to the New York Times, “eliminate the need for federal agents seeking secret surveillance warrants to show that a suspect is affiliated with a foreign power or agent, like a terrorist group.”

You read that right. The bill would essentially make it legal for the government to spy on any American for any reason, as long as they could convince a judge that this person might possibly, someday, decide to think about doing anything that could be remotely construed as terrorism.

The biggest problem with the FBI’s use of secret warrants for surveillance and other invasions of privacy is that Congress has no idea to what use the FBI is actually putting them. Congress, under current law, has no way of ensuring that the FBI and the executive branch are not abusing the powers they gained under the misnamed Patriot Act. In essence, one branch of the American government has access to vast amounts of power and is not answerable to the other branches over its use of that power but we are just supposed to trust it not to abuse this power. That sounds like the exact opposite of the goal of the founders of this country when they wrote the Constitution. The Constitution was supposed to ensure that no one branch of government could gain too much power and possibly become despotic.

The supreme law of the United States is the Constitution, and it is what we are nominally defending in the war on terrorism. We, as a nation, have become so focused on winning the “war on terrorism” and defending American values that we are losing sight of what those values are. Those values are embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but if those are trampled on and destroyed, what will we will it matter if we “win?”