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Patriot Act Essay

In her article, Cathy Zeljak maintains that the Patriot Act has infringed on Americans’ civil liberties, particularly the Fourth Amendment’s protections against illegal searches and surveillance. Using the recent history of legal decisions on law enforcement agencies’ information-gathering practices, the author argues that the Patriot Act strips citizens of the legal protections they received in the late 1970s.

Throughout the piece, she asks, “Are we sacrificing essential liberties in the fight against terrorism? (Zeljak, 2004, p. 69), and her answer (the overriding thesis of this article) is “yes. ” Zeljak argues that the Patriot Act undermines both the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Act, which was passed in 1978 to impose guidelines on government surveillance of private citizens. Before then, government surveillance of citizens lacked clear guidelines, and government agencies behaved arbitrarily as a result.

Supposed “threats,” like antiwar activists and civil-rights leaders like Martin Luther King, were frequently monitored and harassed. The FISA Act aimed to curb these abuses and placed more legal guidelines on federal surveillance, requiring that foreign intelligence had to be a primary cause for issuing a warrant to conduct surveillance on an individual. However, the Patriot Act has removed many of the FISA Act’s protections, now allowing warrants to be issued with foreign intelligence purposes as only a tangential reason, not a primary cause.

In addition, law enforcement officials may now seize a wider array of records, using the broad definition “any tangible thing” (Zeljak, 2004, p. 70) instead of the narrow lists specified by the FISA Act. The Patriot Act also allows government agencies to spy on innocent third parties as a means of obtaining information about primary suspects, further weakening the Fourth Amendment’s protections, and it allows agencies to share information more freely, without letting accused individuals known what evidence exists against them.

In March 2002, FISC rejected John Ashcroft’s proposals to allow law enforcement officials broader access to (and use of) information gathered under the Patriot Act. In effect, says Zeljak, this “transferred fundamental rights away from individual citizens, greatly increasing the authority of intelligence and investigative agencies” (Zeljak, 2004, p. 70). FISA warrants can thus be used for criminal investigations without clear probable cause.

Zeljak also claims that, despite two court defeats on this issue, the Bush administration hopes to further expand its surveillance and prosecutory powers with Patriot Act II, which would automatically grant federal agents who conduct illegal searches complete immunity and allow the government to deport American citizens found guilty of helping terrorist organizations.

Basically, she maintains, such an expansion of the Patriot Act would allow the government near-total freedom to conduct investigations with few legal guidelines, and would considerably curtail citizens’ protections and civil liberties. Zeljak concludes the article by stating that “Americans must wonder whether we are sacrificing essential liberties in the fight against terrorism,” and ends with a provocative question: “. . . have the terrorists already won the opening round? ” (Zeljak, 2004, p. 0)

Zeljak takes a clear stance against the Patriot Act, considering it a flagrant violation of American citizens’ constitutionally-guaranteed rights against illegal surveillance. She asserts that the FISA Act has essentially been gutted and that plans to widen the Patriot Act would further deprive citizens of legal protection, making their rights meaningless in the name of intelligence gathering. Her concluding question implies that, with the Patriot Act, democracy has been undermined.

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