The Patriot Act: Separating Hysteria from Fact

Posted: Sep 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Every time self-described civil libertarians pick something to complain about, they end up with egg on their faces.

The latest embarrassment is the revelation that the Department of Justice has not invoked the Patriot Act's Section 215 - a section of the act that the ACLU crowd claims has turned the FBI into a library-raiding Gestapo.

What, in reality, is Section 215? It's a relatively innocuous provision of the Patriot Act that allows law enforcement to obtain, after getting approval from a judge, documents from third parties - your credit card company, for example - if they're pertinent to a terrorism investigation.

Caught up in the Section 215 hysteria they helped create, librarians have gone batty. One even burned her records lest the feds get their hands on the raw data revealing how many 15-year-olds borrowed "The Catcher In the Rye." Senator Russ Feingold even declared that Section 215 has made Americans "afraid to read books, terrified into silence."

Well, it turns out that this has all been an exercise in self-indulgent, pompous liberal feel-goodism and false bravado. Not only has the government never used 215, but the section doesn't even mention libraries - or any of the other secular holy sites allegedly imperiled by it.

At minimum, critics should stop talking about the Patriot Act's "trampling of rights" in the present tense. And lest they claim that they are being "vigilant" in the face of potential threats, someone should remind them that vigilance is fine, but lying and fear-mongering is crying wolf.

The Section 215 bashing is just the latest in an ongoing campaign to make up a problem out of the Patriot Act that does not exist. I'm sure you've heard that the Patriot Act also permits, in the words of Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine, "spying on the Web browsers of people who are not even criminal suspects." Errr, wrong. The Patriot Act actually toughens the standards by which the government can snoop on electronic communications.

Before the Patriot Act, there was no settled law on whether the government - or for that matter, some random stalker or - could acquire that kind of information. The Patriot Act made it a crime for the government or anybody else to pry into your e-mail without getting a court order.

There's been a lot of gnashing of teeth over the allegedly "widespread" civil rights abuses since Sept. 11. Well, it's a good thing the Patriot Act requires the DOJ's inspector general to investigate civil rights complaints. The last report, issued over the summer, found that there were 34 "credible" allegations of abuse out of 1,037 claims made over a six-month period (note: that's allegations, not convictions). And most of these "credible" but unproven allegations involved such horrors as verbal harassment of prisoners by prison guards. That's not nice and it shouldn't happen, but it's hardly 1930s Germany.

The complaints of lost civil rights go on. We hear about prisoners "kept in secret" when they're really not. Rather, the government won't release their names to the media - or to the terrorists who are keen to find out such information. However, the prisoners themselves - through their lawyers or families - are free to release their names.

The ACLU says that the feds can secretly enter your home while you're out and rifle through your files, underwear drawer, whatever. Well, that's true, if the cops get a warrant first and notify you later. If that scares you, I'm sorry. But it's hardly something new.

And of course, there's the partisanship. John Ashcroft (for whom my wife works) is the most unpopular man in the universe - if you go by what the Ashcroft-phobes say. There's nothing you can say that goes far enough for the hysterical base of the increasingly hysterical Democratic party. Senator John F. Kerry declared at a recent debate that he could see in the audience "people from every background, every creed, every color, every belief, every religion. This is, indeed, John Ashcroft's worst nightmare here."

One might ask Kerry, "Have you no shame, Senator?" But it's too late for that. The pertinent question now is: "Have you lost your mind?" Ashcroft's job approval rating with the American people is about the same or higher than every major Democratic figure, including Hillary and Bill Clinton and Tom Daschle. The Ashcroft - and Bush - haters need to get out more.

Indeed, we're told there's a nationwide groundswell against the supposed "trampling of civil liberties." But two years of Gallup polls show that as many people think the government hasn't gone "far enough" restricting civil liberties in order to fight terrorism as think it's gone "too far." Meanwhile, a solid majority believe - and have believed all along - that the government's gotten it "about right" on civil liberties.

This should be sobering to the people who have steadily beaten the drums about this stuff because it shows that most Americans don't take them seriously - and they're right not to.