USA PATRIOT Act
ecent revelations about domestic
spying have startled a U.S. public that thought it had adequate
safeguards to protect its privacy. But those who have been observing
the Bush administration since the 9/11 attacks, namely the American
Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee
(BORDC), see these revelations as the logical extension of a drive
toward a police state, which began with passage of the USA PATRIOT
Nowhere in the country is this police state becoming more evident
than in Michigan where Metropolitan Detroit comprises possibly the
largest Arab population outside the Middle East with 400,000 people.
“People don’t know what’s going on and what’s
worse, they don’t care,” said James Rodbard, a Kalamazoo
attorney and president of the ACLU Michigan affiliate.
Bush’s 2002 authorization of the National Security Agency’s
domestic eavesdropping program seems to have proved the ACLU and
BORDC right about their concerns. Moreover, in December 2005 the
USA PATRIOT Act got Congress scrambling for a five-week extension
in order to prevent the expiration of its anti-terror law enforcement
provisions. Key to this extension was the U.S. Senate’s concern
over the president’s abuse of power, as well as the effort
to pass “a bill that promotes our security while preserving
our freedom, and a bill that will earn and deserve the widespread
support of the American people,” according to Senator Patrick
Although the USA PATRIOT Act appeared to have been a forthright,
Congressional johnny-on-the-spot response to 9/11, in actuality
at least two-thirds of the Act had already been drafted before the
attacks. As a U.S. senator, former Attorney General John Ashcroft
was among those who pushed for hard-core law enforcement enhancement,
a kind of Department of Justice (DOJ) “wish list” that
evolved into the USA PATRIOT Act.
The initial House version of the bill was negotiated with compromises
addressing civil liberties concerns that allowed DOJ excesses and
violated several Fourth Amendment rights having to do with unreasonable
search and seizure. However, Ashcroft and the White House, who both
saw the bill as a top priority in concert with the House leadership,
substituted the negotiated version with another in the middle of
the night before the final up-or-down vote, and the leadership curtailed
debate. This happened just 45 days after the 9/11 attacks and the
bill passed in the House 357-66.
Because the U.S. Senate was locked out of its offices due to the
anthrax scare, few of the senators or their staff even saw the bill,
so there was no debate and the bill passed 98-1 with only Russ Finegold
(D-WI) dissenting. It was later discovered that most legislators
hadn’t read the 342 pages of the proposal, let alone analyzed
After Ashcroft finished drafting the USA PATRIOT Act, he lobbied
congresspeople with the caveat that not passing the Act would result
in their taking the blame for the next act of terrorism.“It
destroyed the whole concept of separation of powers between the
executive and legislative branches of government,” said Noel
Saleh, an immigration attorney and member of the Detroit American
Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “The Congress should not
be a rubberstamp of the Executive Office to enforce the laws.”
In passing the PATRIOT Act, Congress had essentially authorized
the president to do whatever was necessary to respond to 9/11 attacks.
The result is that the PATRIOT Act began a “gradual erosion”
of the Constitution.
“Not all of the PATRIOT Act is bad,” said Rodbard, “but
there are some things in there which loosen the requirements to
show probable cause before searches and seizures can occur.”
Nevertheless, said Rodbard, the PATRIOT Act doesn’t read in
a straightforward way and requires a variety of texts to understand
what it means.
What is frightening, according to Rodbard, are the ambiguous definitions
of domestic terrorism that have the potential of limiting First
Amendment speech rights. Section 505, for example, permits the issuance
of a National Security Letter for a records search, which before
9/11 could be used only very narrowly. Now the FBI can issue the
letter without judicial or third-party oversight. (In April 2004
the ACLU filed suit in the U.S. District Court in New York, challenging
Section 505’s constitutionality. It was ruled unconstitutional
but is currently on appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals Second Circuit.)
In 1978 the U.S. Congress passed legislation to counter the infamous
COINTELPRO, an FBI domestic spy program that preyed on peace groups
and civil rights organizations during the 1960s and 1970s. Led by
Sen. Frank Church (D-ID), this legislation prohibited domestic surveillance
without a criminal investigation. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, however,
the DOJ allows agents to infiltrate and spy on people in protest
groups, mosques, churches, and synagogues (as illustrated with the
Fresno, California peace group in Michael Moore’s film,
). The new rules for the Federal Bureau of Prisons also allow
the monitoring of attorney-client discussions in national security
The most controversial part of the USA PATRIOT Act is Section 215,
which has to do with search warrants. The FBI may gather information
on citizens and non-citizens without probable cause using warrants
issued by special federal courts created under the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act (FISA). FISA was a compromise that allowed the
FBI to carry out counter-intelligence programs to target terrorists
and spies. FISA, as amended by the PATRIOT Act, lowers the threshold
of what the FBI shows to the courts and allows for the search of
any tangible thing for anybody, including records from a person’s
bank, library loans, and bookstore purchases. Nevertheless, obtaining
a FISA warrant still has to be for the collection of foreign intelligence,
not criminal law enforcement.
Through FISA federal authorities can hold secret courts to hear
requests by the FBI for secret wiretaps and search warrants. No
other party is permitted to appear and the courts are closed. While
DOJ officials claim these activities are aimed only against international
terrorists for intelligence gathering purposes, U.S. citizens and
green card holders are not exempt from FISA surveillance under the
PATRIOT Act. In the past, when the FBI requested a secret search
warrant, the FISA court scrutinized it to verify that the primary
purpose for the search was related to the activities of foreign
governments or their agents. Now the FBI only has to certify that
a “significant” purpose of the search is in connection
with an investigation of foreign intelligence. At that point, the
court must issue the warrant.
The PATRIOT Act also changes the definition of terrorism. Before
9/11 a $100 donation to an orphanage in Lebanon would go unheeded.
Now, it can be the basis for a charge of material support for terrorism.
If convicted, a person can be sentenced to 15 years in jail as a
terrorist. Because of this provision, over 5,000 Arab and Muslim
men in the United States have been questioned about their donations
to Middle East and Southeast Asian charities. Many have been held
without charges or access to an attorney. DOJ authorities have not
acknowledged who these men are nor where they are being held. When
Congress asked the DOJ for information about these men, it was rebuffed
because of national security concerns. Ashcroft designated such
matters as “special interests” and closed them off from
In 2003 the government requested broader powers. However, due to
vast public outcry, the proposed Domestic Security Enhancement Act
of 2003 (PATRIOT Act II) was never introduced in Congress. Instead,
it was piece-mealed into a variety of other bills and, in some cases,
enacted as the Intelligence Act of 2004.
Abuses Against Arabs and Muslims
e’re in for some difficult
times,” said Saleh. “Many people are not aware of events
or the actions of our government that are tearing away at the fabric
of what makes America unique.” He listed some highlights of
the actual repercussions resulting from the PATRIOT Act.
Rabih Haddad, a Muslim cleric who lived in Ann Arbor, was charged
with overstaying his visa. They held him without bond for 19 months
and did not charge him as a terrorist or as a national security
threat. During his trial in U.S. District Court, his family was
not allowed to attend and the press was not permitted. The ACLU,
Congressperson John Conyers, and the
Detroit Free Press
suit against the U.S. attorney general claiming that Haddad had
a right to an open hearing in court under the First Amendment. The
court agreed, and, on appeal, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
Judge Damon Keith, in his opinion upholding the trial court, remarked
that “democracy dies behind closed doors.”
In the DOJ appeal the Third Circuit Court in New Jersey ruled against
this case affirming the government’s right to closed hearings
in immigration cases. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court to
settle the matter, but the Justice Department considered Haddad
a closed case and said it opposed any further rulings. The U.S.
Supreme Court declined to review the case without comment (Case
No. 02-1289). The Sixth Circuit Court ruling prevailed for Haddad
because he lived under its jurisdiction while similar cases tried
in the Third Circuit Court were bound by its judge’s ruling.
Subsequent to his trial, Haddad was deported for overstaying his
In 2002 in Moscow, Idaho, 120 FBI agents in riot gear arrested a
Saudi Muslim graduate student and charged him with visa fraud and
“unauthorized employment.” (His visa did not permit him
to earn money while in the United States.) Studying to be a computer
engineer, the student had volunteered his time to design a website
for a charitable organization. During the investigation, he was
accused of lying about his employment and providing material support
to terrorists. The case was tried before a jury and he was pronounced
Members of Doctors Without Borders witnessed a raid by agents of
the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) while they dined
in a Southeast Asian restaurant in New York. The agents rounded
up the employees and checked their documents to make sure their
papers were legal.
Mohammed Abdrabboh, an attorney who serves the Arab and Muslim population
in Detroit, shared stories of his experiences with the PATRIOT Act.
After 9/11, the Justice Department sent a letter to thousands of
non-U.S. citizens inviting them to participate in a voluntary interview.
Abdrabboh sat in on 30 interviews and soon realized that the people
who appeared were being racially profiled. Among the recipients
of the letter were all men of a certain age who entered the United
States during a certain time and who came from 23 Arab countries
and North Korea. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)
fingerprinted the men and took their photos.
In other actions, the INS deported 300,000 people including 15,000
from the Middle East. The INS also asked Iraqi nationals for information
that could help the United States with the war against Iraq.
Abdrabboh worked on a case of one Yemini man who had lived in the
U.S. for 40 years, worked at General Motors, and didn’t even
have a speeding ticket. He had recently opened a postal service
center and convenience store. On December 18, 2002, during Operation
Green Quest—a cooperative program of the FBI, INS, and Secret
Service—this man was arrested, all his assets were frozen,
and he was charged with failing to register his money when he transferred
it to his new business. Apprently, he was under investigation because
for years he had sent money overseas to his family.
In five different U.S. cities Operation Green Quest also rounded
up many other people of Middle Eastern descent under the guise of
“fighting terrorism.” The media reported this event as
“busting terrorists” for sending money overseas. As a
result, many Middle Easterners have come to Abdrabboh to consult
him about their contributions to family and charities overseas that
rely on their help.
Abdrabboh, who received the 2002 National Arab-American Discrimination
Committee Pro-bono Lawyer of the Year Award, had also seen Middle
Easterners’ freedom of speech violated. Due to their apprehension
of federal authorities, these people have reduced their political
activism and become less vocal. They are also afraid to be seen
as opponents of the war in Iraq or in favor of Palestine because
they don’t want to look like “terrorist” sympathizers.
But the purview of the PATRIOT Act is not confined to visitors,
immigrants, or green card holders. Access to public information
provided by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is also at risk.
For example, under the Clean Water Act of 1972, corporations must
provide a toxic chemicals report. However, under the proposed PATRIOT
Act II many of these documents would no longer be available for
public examination. Also, sensitive information such as the name
of the company and the location of the plant that produces the chemicals
could be removed. If a whistleblower releases the information, that
person may go to jail for ten years.
ettina Meyer, assistant dean
of the Western Michigan University (WMU) Libraries, shared her recent
experiences with the PATRIOT Act regarding the Department of Justice’s
recent request that depositories of government documents on health,
energy (including nuclear energy), and the environment be removed.
The request indicated that all U.S. libraries would be audited to
make sure this order had been carried out. Recently, the DOJ tried
to remove some documents from university libraries, including WMU.
“But we refused to comply,” said Meyer. Complaints from
the American Library Association (ALA), and from university libraries
who depend on government documents for research, created such a
flurry that the DOJ rescinded the order. The WMU Library is a “selective
repository” for government documents, said Meyer, meaning that
it houses 70 percent of the government documents published.
“The American Library Association aims to protect the intellectual
freedom of our patrons,” said Meyer, noting that the library
does record the books patrons read and borrow, as well as the articles
they photocopy. “However, in order to maintain each patron’s
privacy, we delete these records once the materials are returned.”
Meyer said the library staff contemplated putting up a sign in the
library that the government may be watching what patrons read. But
they nixed that idea because they didn’t want to scare students,
especially WMU’s international students, which amounts to about
6 percent of the student body. “I don’t want to let that
happen or allow FBI agents to approach students without helping
them [the students] out,” said Meyer. On the other hand, she
acknowledged that librarians would be at risk of apprehension for
refusing to cooperate with federal agents.
“The WMU Libraries and member American Library Association
institutions have been at the forefront of fighting against invasions
of privacy for both national and international students,” said
Meyer. “The ALA has been very adamant in protecting people’s
right to read whatever they want to read. It is against any and
all banning of books.” She added that there have been past
attempts to ban books on the subject of homosexuality and racism.
The president’s warrant-free domestic spy program and “war
on terrorism” crusade are being used as justification and assumed
executive privilege (albeit raw power) to root out the bad guys.
Indeed, as Bush supporters are want to say: “Freedom isn’t
free.” What Americans are finding out, however, is what Benjamin
Franklin knew all along: “They that can give up essential liberty
to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor
Bonfiglio is a professor of education at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.
This article is adapted from her book on the Kalamazoo peace movement
Heroes of A Different Stripe: One Town Responds
to the War with Iraq