USA Patriot Act — A threat to personal privacy?

Is it possible that the FBI has a record of every book you have checked out of the Roscoe L. West Library? Doubtful, but indeed possible, under the USA Patriot Act. This act was the topic of the Politics Forum held last Tuesday by Daryl Fair, constitutional law specialist and political science professor at the College.

According to Fair, “USA Patriot” is actually an acronym that stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”

The act was created for the purpose of protecting the county against terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks.

The act, in its entirety, is over 300 pages long. Fair chose to summarize and discuss its ten most controversial provisions.

The first provision of the act that Fair discussed was third party records searches.

This provision states that the FBI is allowed to obtain personal records through a third party without your knowledge, whether or not the individual is a terrorist suspect.

Although the Department of Justice says that this type of search is limited to business records, the term is very ambiguous.

Fair questioned its meaning, and asked, “What are business records? What you checked out of the library are business records.”

The “sneak and peek” privilege granted to the FBI is another controversial provision of the USA Patriot Act.

This allows the FBI to execute a search warrant without notifying the person to be searched.

Of this provision, Fair asked, “Is the FBI searching your premises right now? The answer is – you don’t know.”

Although the person being searched is supposed to be informed within a “reasonable period,” the act does not specify a time limit.

Yet another provision of the USA Patriot Act allows access to an individual’s phone log, which identifies who a person has called and from whom he or she has received calls.

Further provisions include roving wiretaps and national security letters, which are similar to subpoenas but can be issued without court approval.

Fair reviewed the provisions and possible ramifications of the USA Patriot Act, beginning with an overview.

He then allowed faculty and students to ask questions and voice their opinions about the act.

After describing these sections of the act, Fair continued by explicating the government’s response to it.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has been touring the United States to voice his support for the Act.

According to Fair, the main purpose of this tour is to convince members of Congress to continue supporting it.

Recently, some Congressmen have been suggested that they may have made the wrong decision in supporting the Act.

Fair said, “(The Bush) administration’s response seems to be that the best defense is a good offense,” because the president actually proposed an expansion of the USA Patriot Act after its merit was questioned.

One facet of this expansion is the use of the death penalty in certain terror related offenses.

According to Fair, this act gives too much power to the executive branch of the government, and removes the check of the judicial branch by allowing the FBI to take action against terrorism without the approval of the courts.

For this reason, and because of the fact that this act may violate Fourth Amendment rights, Fair says that certain aspects are constitutionally questionable.

Although the Department of Justice says that the act has played a leading role in protecting U.S. citizens from deadly terrorists, they have not released data proving this claim.

This lack of information gives the public good reason to be wary of the act and its ability to invade the private lives of any citizen.

When asked if the act really has been effective thus far, Fair responded, “We are left twisting in the wind, really, because we are left with no data to answer the question.”