- - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Patriot Act was fashioned with good intentions, but it has been dragooned to serve bad purposes. It was enacted during the national panic that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 to protect Americans from the enemy. Now it’s employed by government busybodies to treat Americans themselves as the enemy.

Fed up with the abuse, certain lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pushing legislation to repeal the act. While we share their outrage, repeal without a workable substitute could leave the nation vulnerable to a new generation of evil. There’s surely a solution that preserves safety without trampling liberty. Congress must find it.

Domestic spying is an equal opportunity destroyer, one that threatens Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as those who would cross the street to avoid either party. Reps. Mark Pocan, Wisconsin Democrat, and Thomas Massie, Kentucky Republican, joined forces Tuesday to introduce the Surveillance State Repeal Act, whose major provisions would eliminate the threat and require the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to destroy everything collected under the Patriot Act, except for whatever material may be in use now in a legitimate investigation. “The warrantless collection of millions of personal communications from innocent Americans is a direct violation of our constitutional right to privacy,” Mr. Pocan said in presenting the bill. “Revelations about the NSA’s programs reveal the extraordinary extent to which the program has invaded Americans’ privacy.”

Since President George W. Bush signed it into law more than a dozen years ago, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have used the Patriot Act to intercept the communications of foreign terrorists. But in doing so they have steadily chipped away at the privacy of Americans. In particular, secret courts created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act have enabled government spies at the National Security Agency to expand their authority, from capturing suspicious telephone calls and Internet communications to and from parties overseas, to collecting and storing a trillion electronic communications from innocent Americans. Doing so has rendered the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures a dead letter.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the Republican author of the Patriot Act, now laments its overreach, conceding that it would never have become the law if Congress had understood at the time that it would be used to authorize domestic spying. Since 2013, he has backed legislation to restrain its surveillance powers.

“The natural progress of things,” observed Thomas Jefferson, “is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Even he couldn’t have imagined a government capable of collecting almost every word written and spoken across the land. An individual’s right to the privacy of his expressed thoughts is his best defense against groupthink, the herd mentality that takes root when the people allow themselves to be hoodwinked by the crafty and the clever. Hillary Clinton’s keeping her emails private in ways others cannot is a reminder that the governing class always tries to figure out how to exempt themselves from the requirements they impose on others.

If Congress thinks the Surveillance State Repeal Act goes too far, as we do, it still must enact reform that restores the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against warrantless searches and respects the distinction between the innocent and the suspicious. The war on terror must never become a war on liberty.


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