Did anyone else hear the news of Congresss defiant stand against the administration last week? In case you missed it below all the noise of American casualties, dead princes, and empirical entanglements, heres a brief sketch. In a surprising show of bipartisan support, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to cut funding for two key provisions of the controversial PATRIOT Act. Last Thursday, right before the Congressional summer recess, the Senate slipped in two similar bills for debate at the beginning of their term in September. Critics have long complained about the broad powers enshrined under the Act, amounting to what many consider an unrestricted license for the administrations war on terror. Now, almost two years after the Acts hasty passage in October 2001, Congress is finally reining in its capitulation to the Bush administrations pressure after September 11starting with the two most egregious provisions of all: librarian espionage and the sneak and peek warrant.
Under the PATRIOT statute, FBI agents require no probable cause before searching bookstore or library records of people who might be relevant to a terrorism investigation. These suspects can include people who are not suspected of committing a crime or of having any knowledge of a crimeleaving every man, woman and child in American open to suspicion. If you never thought books could be threatening, you might want to watch out for that unsuspecting librarianmost of whom are encouraged by the Justice Department to report suspicious behavior. However, in case any librarian or bookseller should hesitate in their obedience to such Orwellian behavior, the Department slapped a gag order that prohibits these pushers of free press from alerting any patron that an FBI search has occurred. No wonder the House of Representatives, Democrats and Republicans alike, grew so incensed over such Constitutional violations that the PATRIOT Act amendment rolling back such provisions passed overwhelminglywithout need for a hand count.
The second provision of the Act that found itself under Congressional scrutiny is the so-called sneak and peek warrant. Not to be confused with the warrant defined by the Fourth Amendment, protecting against unreasonable search and seizures, this new and improved PATRIOT warrant allows government agents to search homes and confiscate property under a low evidentiary standard, without first notifying the owner. This warrant also betrays the long-held knock and announce requirementallowing subjects of a search to challenge errors in the warrant, such as a wrong address or mistaken name.
And it only gets worse. In order to carry out these sneak and peek warrants, the CIA and National Security Agency are allowed to snoop into the home files and hard drives of every citizen around the globe, including American citizens. Is it any wonder that after a year and a half of such unconscionable legal practice, the House of Representatives voted with a veto-proof margin (308-119) to rollback this key provision?
After weathering so many bleak months of unrestrained attacks on our civil liberties, it feels oddly inspiring to observe a branch of government in its resolute defense of the Bill of Rights. The House, in reconsidering parts of the hastily passed and ill-advised PATRIOT Act, should be applauded for acting in the spirit of true patriotism. The Constitution needs a bodyguard, not an assassin. The executive branch and Congress, in enacting and signing the Act in 2001, acted as the latter. The House now seems to be coming to its senses and realizing what ills the executive branch has perpetuated with the new authority given. Lets hope the Senate follows suit or goes even farther in rescinding unconstitutional and intrusive provisions of a most unpatriotic Act.