Most Americans probably observed this year’s September 11 with a mixture of grief, sadness, and smoldering anger, but President George W. Bush made good political use of the occasion—to demand even more power for the federal police state his administration is constructing.
Not content with measures his critics on both the right and the left view with alarm, the president and his faithful companion Attorney General John Ashcroft have been muttering about how helpless they are against terrorism without the new powers they want.
Despite the hasty enactment of the foolishly named “Patriot Act” in the hysterical wake of the 9/11 attacks, the President at commemorative observances at the FBI academy in Quantico on Sept. 10 pronounced that the powers he already has “did not go far enough,” in the Washington Post‘s paraphrase. Among the powers Mr. Bush wants are the authority to issue subpoenas without permission from a grand jury, the power to hold suspects without bail, and more use of the death penalty. [“President Asks for Expanded Patriot Act Authority Sought To Fight Terror,” By Dana Milbank, Washington Post , September 11, 2003]
As for Mr. Ashcroft, he seems to have devoted most of September to hectoring and ridiculing his critics. Last week he denounce d those critics as “hysterics” and claimed their worries about infringing civil liberties were merely “ghosts.”
If the critics consisted only of the usual gang of professional civil liberties lawyers, professors and ideologues, Mr. Ashcroft’s badinage might be justified, and the attorney general would probably like everyone to think that’s who the critics are.
But they’re not. They include such non-hysterical voices of the political right as former Rep. Bob Barr, one of the most conservative figures in politics, and the equally conservative legislator Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. It is mainly due to Mr. Sensenbrenner that the ill-conceived child of the Patriot Act, often called “Patriot II,” has not already become law.
What especially worries the critics of the administration’s domestic counter-terrorism program is what is known as Section 215 of the existing act. Under that section the FBI can seize all manner of private records, including the now-famous library check-out and bookstore sales records, but including also computer files, educational and medical records, and genetic information.
The kicker is that the FBI can do all this without informing the person whose records it seizes and without having to show “probable cause” that he is a terrorist or a hostile foreign agent.
The defense of this section of the law by the attorney general and the administration has been that it really hasn’t been used all that much. Thus, Mr. Ashcroft, in his tasteless attempt to ridicule his critics last week, brayed that “the Department of Justice has neither the staffing, the time, or the inclination to monitor the reading habits of Americans,” and an internal memo of his at the Justice Department supports his claim that the department has never used Section 215.
Of course, that defense raises the further question of why the section is necessary at all.
Obviously it isn’t, and probably neither are most of the other powers the Patriot Act grants, let alone the vastly expanded ones of Patriot II.
It is thunderously noticeable in most of the defensive speeches, wisecracks and sarcasm about the critics of these laws that hardy anyone ever actually specifies why such vast powers are needed and what terrorism they have actually prevented. What we do know is that every few weeks the government issues yet another statement claiming that the “terrorist threat” remains serious or is greater than ever or may be getting worse. There seems to be no reason to think the new powers have helped us at all.
But the larger point is not what this administration does or doesn’t do with the new powers.
The point is that the powers are far larger than the government of any free people should have and that whatever powers this administration doesn’t use could still be used by future ones.
That, of course, is how free peoples typically lose their freedom—not by a dictator like Saddam Hussein suddenly grabbing power in the night and seizing all the library records but by the slow erosion of the habits and mentality that enables freedom to exist at all.
Instilling in citizens the notion that the power to seize library records is something the state needs is an excellent way to assist that erosion.
Most libertarians, of the left or the right, will tell you how we have been eroding those habits and that mentality for several decades now.
What the Bush administration is contributing seems to be one of the final chapters in the story.