As debate over the PATRIOT Act hits a high (or low…) point, I have tried to find un-spun information on the act – but to no avail. I even tried reading the actual legislation, but became so exhausted wading through the piles of legal jargon looking for what I really wanted that I just gave up. I shall continue my quest to find out the truth about the PATRIOT Act, but until then, here’s the scoop on what I’ve found so far:

Major arguments surrounding the PATRIOT Act

1. Information Sharing
Sec. 203(b) and (d): Allows information from criminal probes to be shared with intelligence agencies and other parts of the government.
Pro: Supporters say the provisions have greatly enhanced information sharing within the FBI, and with the intelligence community at large.
Con: Critics warn that unrestricted sharing could lead to the development of massive databases about citizens who are not the targets of criminal investigations.
Jama’s take: I’m not terribly concerned about this. I see absolutely no problem with police organizations sharing information with each other – as a matter of fact, it seems silly that they wouldn’t be able to do this! So long as they obtain the information through legal means (via a court order, not simply based on a hunch), then there should be few, if any, restrictions on their ability to share this information.

2. Roving Wiretaps
Sec. 206: Allows one wiretap authorization to cover multiple devices, eliminating the need for separate court authorizations for a suspect’s cell phone, PC and Blackberry, for example. Expires Dec. 31.
Pro: The government says roving wiretaps are needed to deal with technologically sophisticated terrorists.
Con: Critics say the language of the act could lead to privacy violations of anyone who comes into casual contact with a suspect.
Jama’s take: Now this I’m a little unsure about. As someone who has studied Criminal Procedure and Judicial Process (through my Legal Studies minor at ETSU) I have learned how easy it is to “fill in the blanks” on a warrant form. I am unsure why it is necessary to obtain “sweeping wire taps” when one could merely use the same probable cause for each device and “fill in the blanks” on multiple warrant forms. Sure, the roving tap may make the process a little easier, but let’s take a look at a possible means of abuse: my mom bought my neice a cell phone. If the police wanted to place a “sweeping wire tap” on my mother’s electronic devices, then my neice’s cell phone would be included – the phone is in my mother’s name and under her care, although she is not the one who uses it. So the police are actually going to be wasting their time listening in on my neice’s phone conversations about cheerleading practice and the prom. If, however, the police were required to justify each wire tap, it is highly probable that the judge would have noticed that the tap on the second cell phone (that actually belongs to my neice) was unnecessary. See my point? Not a lot of extra effort is required to get the additional wire taps, and not only could we avoid possible civil liberties violations but officers’ time could be better used if they are not listening in on devices that have very little to do with the actual suspect.

3. Access to Records
Sec. 215: Allows easier access to business records in foreign intelligence investigations. Expires Dec. 31.
Pro: The provision allows investigators to obtain books, records, papers, documents and other items sought “in connection with” a terror investigation.
Con: Critics attack the breadth of the provision, saying the law could be used to demand the reading records of library or bookstore patrons.
Jama’s Take: This explanation is lacking. I’m unsure what the problem would be with this provision so long as the officers have obtained the proper warrants from the courts.

4. Foreign Intelligence Wiretaps and Searches
Sec. 218: Lowers the bar for launching foreign intelligence wiretaps and searches. Expires Dec. 31.
Pro: Allows investigators to get a foreign intelligence wiretap or search order, even if they end up bringing criminal charges instead.
Con: Because foreign intelligence probes are conducted in secret, with little oversight, critics say abuses could be difficult to uncover.
Jama’s take: I am very nervous about “secret police.” I understand that it is necessary to be sneaky with terrorists, as they are pretty sneaky themselves, but we must be careful when instituting such groups as “secret police” and “secret courts”. It terrifies me to think what may happen if one day the enemy wasn’t the terrorist, but the political activist or the Christian. We must remember that, while these provisions are nifty when fighting evil, they could also be used against those of us who aren’t so evil. Case in point: what if, God forbid, Hillary became president in ’08. Do we want to give her the ability to run a “secret justice system”? I think not.

5. “Sneak & Peek” Warrants
Sec. 213: Allows “Sneak and peek” search warrants, which let authorities search a home or business without immediately notifying the target of a probe. Does not expire
Pro: Supporters say this provision has already allowed investigators to search the houses of drug dealers and other criminals without providing notice that might have jeopardized an investigation.
Con: Critics say the provision allows the use of “sneak and peek” warrants for even minor crimes, not just terror and espionage cases.
Jama’s take: Again, this explanation is lacking. I am unsure why a “sneak and peek” would be problematic so long as the warrant was approved by the appropriate court in light of probable cause.

6. Material Support
Sec. 805: Expands the existing ban on giving “material support” to terrorists to include “expert advice or assistance.” Does not expire.
Pro: Supporters say it helps cut off the support networks that make terrorism possible.
Con: Critics say the provision could lead to guilt by association.
Jama’s take: Here is where we must make sure that the advice or assistance is “knowing” advice or assistance. If some guy called me up and said, “Jama, you have such a brilliant legal mind, I would like to ask your expert opinion on issue X”, I gave it to him, and he turned out to be a terrorist, would I be held responsible? So long as I didn’t know I was giving information to a terrorist, then I should hope not. “Knowing”, however, is difficult to prove, so this could be problematic.

7. The ‘Lone Wolf’ Provision
Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 allows intelligence investigations of lone terrorists not connected to a foreign nation or organization.
While not part of the Patriot Act, this provision also sunsets on Dec. 31 and is under review. Civil liberties groups say the provision could sweep in protesters and those suspected of involvement in domestic terrorism. Language passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee would make this section permanent.
Jama’s take: A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist. Foreign or domestic. Big or small. White, brown, yellow, or purple. Again, so long as we follow the proper channels (i.e. the court system’s requirements of probable cause, etc.) then I am unsure why it is a problem to lump domestic terrorists in with foreign terrorists. Now the protesters – this could be a problem. The first amendment is first for a reason – it’s REALLY important! We need to ensure the safety – protection, even – of protesters no matter what it is they may be protesting against, and lumping them in with terrorists is unacceptable.

My thanks to NPR (wonders never cease!) for information provided on their website (http://www.npr.org/news/specials/patriotact/patriotactprovisions.html)
concerning the pros and cons of the expiring sections of the PATRIOT Act.

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