Right and Left Nonsense about the Patriot Act

The one good thing the Patriot Act has done is provide a lot of entertainment as people on the Right and Left alternately work themselves into knots to try to either oppose or support John Ashcroft’s favorite law.

First, on the Left, here’s a blatant distortion of the act by Pete Ponzetti, a Green Party activist and politician, from an op-ed published in the student newspaper at the university I work at,

Under Section 213, the Patriot Act legally allows secret searches by the FBI, in both terrorism-related and general investigations. Agents can now search homes and offices using a warrant, but without ever notifying the individuals being investigated.

Except, of course, Section 213 is quite clear — the FBI can delay notification of a search warrant with the approval of a judge, but it cannot simply decided to never notify an individual that he or she has been the subject of a search warrant. In fact, Section 213 requires that such search warrants “provide for the giving of such notice within a reasonable period of its execution, which period may thereafter be extended by the court for good cause shown.”

A lot of Left-liberals rail against this so-called “sneak-and-peek” provision, but it is one of the more defensible parts of the legislation. This is the same sort of provision, after all, that applies to wiretaps search warrants. You don’t put a wiretap on a suspected terrorist or organize crime figure and then notify them that, by the way, we’re listening in on your conversations. Similarly, there are clearly cases where it would be prudent not to notify a suspected terrorist that his/her house has been searched by the FBI.

The main problem with Section 213, as with wiretaps, is the possibility of abusing that power. Such fears are only exacerbated by the Justice Department’s incredible level of secrecy about how it enforces the Patriot Act. Which brings me to the right winger who is just as obtuse as Ponzetti, but from a different perspective, Rich Lowry. Lowry rants against the new scourge facing the Republic — librarians — and has a good laugh at Ashcroft’s attempt at embarassing this group,

The A[merican] L[ibrary] A[ssociation]’s opposition to a portion of the Patriot Act that allows counterterrorism investigators to subpoena library records has been total — the ALA is against the very idea of it being on the books (so to speak). So the organization appeared unembarrassed when Ashcroft revealed that this part of the act — hyped by the ALA into a fundamental assault on American rights — has never been used.

But this is precisely the heart of the problem. The fact that this provision of the Patriot Act had never been used was classified until Ashcroft asked it to be declassified specifically to make his point. But how can we possibly be expected to trust a Justice Department that classifies as a state secret the fact that a given law has never been enforced? Far from embarassing the ALA, Ashcroft’s revelation merely underscored the alarming cult of secrecy that obtains in the Justice Department.


The ideological librarians. Rich Lowry, King Features Syndicate, September 22, 2003.

Patriot Act violates citizen’s privacy, should be repealed. Pete Ponzetti, Western Herald, September 17, 2003.