Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

The USA PATRIOT Act: Civil Liberties, the Media, and Public Opinion

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

The USA PATRIOT Act: Civil Liberties, the Media, and Public Opinion

Article excerpt

The new millennium was not yet one year old when it was rocked by the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. The attack was unprecedented in many ways; it was immense, unexpected, cunning, ferocious, and devastating. For millions of Americans, it portended a grim new world order for the days ahead, where even the most secure society might be penetrated and devastated by a small band of determined zealots. (1) The anthrax deaths later that September only added to people's feelings of vulnerability. (2) It is no wonder that barely six weeks later, on October 26, 2001, President George W. Bush quickly signed into law (3) the USA PATRIOT Act (4)--by all measures one of the most sweeping and controversial acts in United States history, (5) intended to dramatically increase government powers of investigation and enforcement, many would argue at the expense of individual liberties. (6) The complex and daring 342-page Act had been hastily passed by overwhelming majorities in the U.S. Senate (98-1) (7) and House (357-66), (8) without public hearings or debate, (9) even though the Act resembled portions of the Antiterrorism Act of 1996, (10) which had already been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts. (11)

More than a year-and-a-half later, how does the U.S. mass media and the public regard this federal anti-terrorism legislation and its abridgement of traditional liberties? This three-part Essay offers an interdisciplinary examination of: (I) the legal provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act; (12) (II) the distinct shift in U.S. media reporting on this legislation over time; (13) and (III) in-depth public opinion findings on people's mixed views of post-9/11 civil liberties. (14)

I. THE USA PATRIOT ACT

Under the pretense of enhancing national security, the USA PATRIOT Act concentrates increased new powers in the executive branch of government, while decreasing judicial oversight. (15) These measures included:

A. Creation of a New Crime

Section 802 of the Act creates a new federal crime of "domestic terrorism," (16) which includes any dangerous acts that "appear to be intended ... to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." (17) Broadly applied, this could be used to silence any political dissent critical of government policies. (18)

B. Diminished Due Process for Immigrants

Section 411 of the Act expands the term "engage in terrorist activity" to include any use of a weapon, as well as such nonviolent acts as fund-raising for suspect organizations. (19) Moreover, it allows for the detention or removal of non-citizens with little or no judicial review. (20) The U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of State can claim a domestic group to be a terrorist organization, (21) and deport any non-citizen members. (22)

C. Diminished Privacy

The Act severely curtails the right to privacy at several turns, including broadening the grounds for increased surveillance and wiretap authority, (23) sneak-and-peek searches, (24) tracking Internet usage, (25) and accessing private records. (26)

D. Lowering Standards of Probable Cause

Section 215 of the Act reduces the traditional Fourth Amendment requirements for probable cause, (27) as previously interpreted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 ("FISA"). (28)

E. Sharing of Intelligence

Section 203 of the Act now permits unprecedented sharing of sensitive information across several independent agencies, including the FBI, CIA, INS, and other state and federal agencies. (29)

As a result of the USA PATRIOT Act, more than 1,200 immigrants in the United States were taken into custody and detained for an extended period without being charged with committing a terrorist act. (30) In response to criticisms of this policy, Attorney General John Ashcroft tersely replied: "Let the terrorists among us be warned ... if you overstay your visas even by one day, we will arrest you. …

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