Tuesday, December 6, 2005


Cyber Age:ND Batra

Restore civil liberties
From The Statesman

The USA Patriot Act hastily enacted in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks has diminished civil liberties, though the American people accepted it stoically as a necessary evil to secure their lives and civil liberties.

The Act gave enormous powers to law enforcement authorities to invade citizens’ privacy and collect information, with little checks and balances, to uncover suspicious patterns of behaviour that might be linked to terrorism.

There has been no empirical evidence that the Patriot Act has pre-empted or prevented terrorist activities in the country, though one might say, in a manner of post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, because there has been no terrorist attack in the USA since 11 September, 2001. So, this in itself is strong evidence that the Patriot Act has been working.

With time, the Patriot Act began to be perceived as the most un-American legislative measure and it has outraged politicians on both sides of the aisle, apart from libraries, corporate America, and small and large businesses that are required to do surveillance on the activities of their patrons, employees and customers.

As The Los Angeles editorial said: “When Congress approved the Patriot Act, it put its trust in prosecutors and investigators to use their expanded powers responsibly. It now appears that trust was misplaced.”

The law enforcement authorities put hundreds of thousands of people under surveillance by demanding to see their private records from various sources without being questioned about the necessity of doing so.

While the victims of surveillance and searches might not have noticed their civil rights being diminished, but the information providers, libraries and retailers, for example, have felt the suffocating power of the Patriot Act.

Since there is no way electronic information can be returned to the owner or be shredded, there is nothing to prevent authorities from misusing the information for political purposes. American society is not based upon blind trust of the people in power. On the contrary, with a healthy doze of cynicism and paranoia, it is presumed that power might be misused and therefore it must be checked and balanced. No one should have power more than is absolutely essential to the job.

The Patriot Act imposed unhealthy silence upon civil society, the countervailing force that has kept America open, free, innovative and creative. The Patriot Act might have been responsible for creating the collective mindset that not only silenced the media about the truth about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but also turned some of the finest investigative journalists, including stars from The New York Times and The Washington Post, into unintentional and unself-conscious collaborators of The White House.

The Patriot Act will expire on 31 December and the Bush administration has sought Congress to reauthorise the Act with minor revisions; but a bi-partisan group of six Senators threatened filibuster unless the reauthorisation Bill contained sufficient safeguards to prevent abuse.

Supporting changes in the revised anti-terror Act are several major US business groups, including Association of Corporate Counsel, the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Realtors, Financial Services Roundtable and Business Civil Liberties Inc, asking for changes in rules that give authorities unbridled access to their confidential records.

Why would the American businessman turn against his benefactor in the White House, a most pro-business administration ever?

According to The Wall Street Journal, the groups’ letter to the Senate Judiciary Chair Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said: “…we are concerned that the rights of businesses to confidential files — records about our customers or our employees, as well as our trade secrets and other proprietary information — can too easily be obtained by the Patriot Act. It is our belief that these new powers lack sufficient checks and balances.”

This is a remarkable statement coming from corporate American, which a few years ago was hit by a spiral of corporate scandals from the energy giant Enron to domestic diva Martha Stewart. Without checks and balances, freedom evaporates and so does trust; and so does the free marketplace, which is based upon nothing but trust.

In the USA, checks-and-balances based freedom is an economic necessity. Since the 11 September terrorists attacks, American businesses have been willingly cooperating with federal law enforcement authorities, primarily to protect and safeguard their businesses and, of course, to appear as responsible corporate citizens.

But in the process, they have been willy-nilly turned into collaborators and informers against their own people, employees, customers and clients at home as well as abroad, as it normally happens in authoritarian regimes like China, for example.

What corporate American wants is the right to question and challenge government requests for records when the information is proprietary (trade secrets) and privileged (confidential negotiations) and has no relevance to the terrorism threat and national security.

An in-camera court could decide in confidence whether such a demand for information is necessary, whether an alternative is available; and how the information would be used and for how long it would be kept in records to prevent its future misuse.

By protecting itself from the excesses of the Patriot Act, corporate America might help restore our civil liberties. That would be a highly patriotic act.

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