The USA PATRIOT Act: The Story of an Impulsive Bill That Eviscerated America’s Civil Liberties

The USA PATRIOT Act provides a textbook example of how the United States federal government expands its power. An emergency happens, legitimate or otherwise. The media, playing its dutiful role as goad for greater government oversight, demands “something must be done.” Government power is massively expanded, with little regard for whether or not what is being done is efficacious, to say nothing of the overall impact on our nation’s civil liberties.

No goals are posted, because if targets are hit, this would necessitate the ending or scaling back of the program. Instead, the program becomes normalized. There are no questions asked about whether the program is accomplishing what it set out to do. It is now simply a part of American life and there is no going back.

The American public largely accepts the USA PATRIOT Act as a part of civic life as immutable, perhaps even more so than the Bill of Rights. However, this act – passed in the dead of night, with little to no oversight, in a panic after the biggest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor – is not only novel, it is also fundamentally opposed to virtually every principle on which the United States of America was founded. It might not be going anywhere anytime soon, but patriots, liberty lovers and defenders of Constitutional government should nonetheless familiarize themselves with the onerous provisions of this law, which is nothing short of a full-throttle attack on the American republic.

What’s Even in the USA PATRIOT Act?

What is in the USA PATRIOT Act? In the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9/11then Rep. John Conyers cracked wise about how no one had actually read the Act and how this was in fact par for the course with America’s laws. Thus, before delving into the deeper issues surrounding the PATRIOT Act, it is worth discussing what the Act actually says. Here’s a brief look at the 10 Titles in the PATRIOT Act:

  • Title I: Enhancing Domestic Security Against Terrorism: This provision dramatically expands the powers of the President, the military and the intelligence community whenever the specter of “terrorism” is invoked. Bizarrely, it contains a provision condemining discrimination against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians, which seems to have very little to do with protecting Americans from terrorism.
  • Title II: Enhanced Surveillance Procedures: Title II contains the meat of the Act with regard to massive, industrial-scale surveillance on the American public. Beyond the simple spying on Americans and their communications, Title II increases the ability of federal intelligence agencies to share your private communications with one another.
  • Title III: International Money Laundering Abatement and Financial Anti-Terrorism Act: Not simply a section of the USA PATRIOT Act, Title III is an Act of Congress in its own right. You might have noticed how much more difficult it is to open a bank account or send a wire transfer after 9/11. You can blame this provision, which shredded banking privacy rights in the United States.
  • Title IV: Protecting the Border: Other than expanding the number of federal employees (of course), the provision of the USA PATRIOT Act charged with protecting America’s borders does little other than point toward paths for future action and study. It is worth noting that the weakest provision of the Act is the only one explicitly authorized by the Constitution — protecting the border.
  • Title V: Removing Obstacles to Investigating Terrorism: Title V authorizes bounties for the apprehension of alleged terrorists, broadens government power to conduct DNA analysis, allows for greater data sharing between law enforcement agencies and, perhaps most disturbingly, requires private telecommunication carriers to comply with government requests for electronic communication records whenever requested by the FBI. It also expands the power of the Secret Service to investigate computer fraud.
  • Title VI: Providing for Victims of Terrorism, Public Safety Officers and Their Families: Perhaps the most innocuous portion of the USA PATRIOT Act, Title VI provides for a victims’ fund for victims of terrorism and their families.
  • Title VII: Increased Information Sharing for Critical Infrastructure Protection: The subtitle of this section of the Act is a rather wordy way of saying that the United States federal government is allowing for law enforcement agencies to share information across jurisdictional boundaries in an easier fashion than was previously legal. To that end, the Bureau of Justice Assistance was given a $50,000,000 budget for 2002 and a whopping $100,000,000 budget for fiscal year 2003.
  • Title VIII: Strengthening the Criminal Laws Against Terrorism: Title VIII is where the rubber meets the road: What exactly is terrorism, according to the federal government? Unfortunately, this Title does little to clarify what terrorism is, instead focusing on declaring a number of actions (such as attacks on transit) as “terrorism,” regardless of intent.
  • Title IX: Improved Intelligence: The section subtitled “improved intelligence” largely expands the powers and responsibilities of the Director of Central Intelligence.
  • Title X: Miscellaneous: When the federal government titles a segment of a law “miscellaneous,” you know it’s going to include everything and the kitchen sink. And so it does: The definition of electronic surveillance, additional funds for the DEA in South and Central Asia, research on biometric scanning systems, a limitation on hazmat licensure and infrastructure protections are all addressed in Title X, which is a catchall for everything the federal government forgot to address in the first nine sections of the law.

Most of the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act were set to sunset four years after the bill was passed into law. However, the law was extended first by President George W. Bush and then by President Barack H. Obama. The latter is particularly scandalous given that, at least in part, a rejection of the surveillance culture that permeated the Bush Administration was responsible for the election of Obama in 2008.

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On Twitter, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

“There continues to be meaningful public conversation about how we think about Tweets from world leaders on our service,” begins a post at the micro-blogging service’s non-micro-blog.

In summary, certain Super Very Important Special People (“world leaders”) are exempt from Twitter’s rules, but henceforth Regular Normal Completely Unimportant People (like you and me) are subject to new rules. We can’t like, reply, share or retweet rules-violating tweets from Super Very Important Special People.

“We understand the desire for our decisions to be ‘yes/no’ binaries,” the blog post continues, “but it’s not that simple …. Our goal is to enforce our rules judiciously and impartially.”

Well, yes, it is that simple. Impartiality in rules is the exact opposite of  dividing Twitter users into two classes, one of  them subject to the rules, one of them not.

In their great and unmatched wisdom, Twitter’s owners have over time moved to police speech on their platform in various ways.

They don’t HAVE to do that, at least in the US — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects them from legal liability for user-created content under most circumstances.

There’s not even any particularly good reason to police user content, since the service’s “block” option allows users to ignore (by not seeing) content from other users whose opinions or language offend.

But hey,  OK, fine — Twitter is a privately owned service, not a public square, and its owners are entitled to set any rules they care to set for its use.

On the other hand, it’s neither judicious nor impartial to make some rules, then announce exemptions from those rules for Super Very Important Special People while heaping new rules on Normal Completely Unimportant People to keep us from acting like Super Very Important Special People.

Not judicious. Not impartial. In fact, pretty [insert your preferred non-newspaper-safe expletive here] offensive.

The Super Very Important Special People already have their own bully pulpits from which to yell anything they like and be heard and obeyed. We Normal Completely Unimportant People don’t get to hold press conferences in front of news cameras on the White House lawn in Washington, or on the front stoop at 10 Downing Street in London, or on the steps of the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.

Twitter keeps making itself less useful to most of us in order to curry favor with a few. That’s not just injudicious and partial, it’s a bad business plan.

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Straightforward Communication

The world is wild and zany these days.

Everyone is bombastic. The brands of public figures are extreme and do stuff that would once have seemed shocking. We’ve learned the rules of the internet and social platforms like Twitter and taken them near their logical ends.

When the three point line was introduced to the NBA, it took several decades for old talent and coaching to master the full implications of the rule change and take the game to its current state, the logical conclusion of spots on the court worth 50% more than others.

People master the incentive structures they’re in. But it takes time and sometimes generation shift.

Now that we’re fully exploiting the incentive structure of social media, we get what we’ve got.

Hot takes. Trolling. Subterfuge. Memes. Weird causes. Signaling. Outrage. Counter-outrage.

Every crazy sounding thing can be played as a subtle form of strategy, or a secret code for followers at the expense of noobs.

I don’t find this good or bad. But I do find it a bit boring.

What was novel and wild is now kind of tiring. Everyone sounds the same to me now. And they sound the same while not really saying anything. Or at least not anything interesting. They are shouting and flashing big neon lights but my senses are adapted to a noisy, bright environment.

It feels like a lot of pretend ideas, pretend concern, and scripted formats for communicating them for maximum punch. Which ends up having the reverse effect.

Maybe this is one of those “medium is the message” things, but I don’t think it likely. I think the message feels lost in the medium. I’m hungry for interesting messages, not just mastered mediums.

I’m not sure exactly what a less boring stream of discourse and idea would look like. I only know that I’m getting more bored by what’s considered controversial or provocative. Supposedly polarized people all sound the same to me.

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Is Rad a Word?

Nobody asked but …

It is too easy to examine an anecdote, and then make grandiose generalizations from it.  Isn’t there a dear cost for exploiting such couplings?  Doesn’t TANSTAAFL apply inexorably?  The first cost is to risk the value of your reputation for credibility.  The foremost long term cost may be the opportunity cost in failing to seek more precise knowledge.  Today I was with a group that was in danger of reaching consensus on the idea that our language was deteriorating, and the blame lay primarily with youth.  Then several stories were shared to show the overwhelming presence of the problem.   But then several inputs were added to counter the anecdotes, so we drifted toward a greater probability — that language is constantly changing, sometimes looking distressed or appearing immortal.

How many people today sound like Shakespeare?  The thing is that language sounds like whomever is speaking it, and therefore there are billions of manifestations of communication.  Just as Shakespeare was unique, so are all humans unique — but the fact likely remains that 99.9% of humans are lesser communicators than Shakespeare was.  This is not a sign that language is deteriorating — only that Shakespeare is not still alive.  The alternate evidence of his words being with us daily, more than 400 years later, is worth noting.  And this is not a sign that language advances at all times.

It was observed that an Internet game, WordScapes, now accepts the word “rad” (short for “radical?”).  It is ironic that “radical,” itself, is a mishmash from earlier languages referring to various forms of roots, vegetable that is.  Originally, I think it meant fundamental, but now it seems to mean departing from the fundamental.

Well, the main fact is that “rad” means whatever its users (senders and receivers) find practically useful.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Seek Not to Be Understood

Nobody asked but …

I am giving you a link to a great piece, Lead a Life That Confuses the Archaeologists by fellow EVC blogger, James Walpole.  I believe the gist of his article is a metaphor for living your life as though it were your own.  I have read two other docs that made me ready to agree — Snow Crash, by Neil Stephenson, and They Wrote on Clay: The Babylonian Tablets Speak Today, by Edward Chiera.  BTW, I read these as chosen at random, not to confuse anthropologists and archaeologists of the future.  If you make your life an interesting life, the confluence of events, the collision of unforeseen consequences, will make it an unique life — a life that will not fit in an academician’s box, a life that will not constrain you to climb into a box.

Walpole’s advice, it seems to me, is to take off the blinders, relax, you cannot really be someone else’s construct — you are an individual.  That which attempts to measure you will produce an unattached, and essentially unrelated, version of you.  I once read that if you have a small enough measuring rod, the coastline of Maine can be billions of miles long.  This leads to a conclusion that if the investigatory tools of the archaeologists and anthropologists are fine enough, you can be as large as the universe.

I cite the books above for reasons.  In Snow Crash, a science fiction novel, Stephenson supposes that ancient communications must have a purpose other than recording just the transactions of an olden society — communicating the depth of their culture to humans and other sentient beings of the future.  “Well, all information looks like noise until you break the code,” he writes.  In They Wrote on Clay, a scholarly non-fiction view of the difficulty of translation across time, culture, linguistics, and symbolism, Chiera compares the enormity of the task by having us imagine a dead New York City, thousands of years into the future, where all that remains are buildings and records, and 95% of the records’ content are 1s and 0s stored on computer media.  What will the discovering scientists make of our culture, much less an individual’s idiosyncrasies?

— Kilgore Forelle

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Jeff Brown: Nonviolent Communication (1h9m)

This episode features an interactive lecture by certified trainer Jeff Brown from 2015. Nonviolent communication facilitates harmonious interpersonal relationships in families and communities by allowing people to hear their own deeper needs, and those of others. Purchase Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (1h7m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntaryist voices”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

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