It’s said that a broken clock is right twice a day, and that is true for Senator Rand Paul’s opposition to the four-year extension of the USA Patriot Act that President Obama signed last week. Paul, a Republican, found himself in good company as he joined Democrats John Udall and Ron Wyden in fighting an ultimately losing battle to let the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (get it, USA Patriot Act?) of 2001 expire.
The act was hurriedly passed in the days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon a decade ago when the country woke up to a new reality where transnational terrorists could reach into America with seeming impunity. Both intelligence and law enforcement agencies were caught flatfooted by the sheer audacity and effectiveness of terrorists ability to use our own free society against us and responded, not by taking the fight to the enemy, but by restricting those very freedoms that separate us from them. The spastic reaction was understandable ten years ago, but one decade and one trillion dollars later, taxpayers have the right to expect that, at least within our borders, our lives would have returned to normal. Instead, we have been sentenced to four more years of intrusive and unconstitutional scrutiny by agencies that have learned nothing over the last decade about fighting terrorism.
Want to know what the objectional provisions of the Patriot Act are?¿Senator Wyden, who is a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee would like you to, but says that current and previous administrations have relied on secret legal interpretations of the act. In a speech on the Senate floor before the extension was voted on, Wyden said, “I want to deliver a warning this afternoon: When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”
The act itself and its secret interpretations are testimony to the true lack of progress made in fighting terrorism. The US military has adapted splendily to the fluid and dynamic requirements of fighting transnational terrorism, but the rest of the government has not fared as well. While our military personnel are dutifully pounding enemy combatants flush to the deck whenever they find them, our diplomatic, intelligence and economic policies have not evolved to meet the realities of the post-911 world. Wes Benedict, Executive Director of the Libertarian Party, said it best last week when he said, "We can never perfectly protect ourselves from foreigners who hate us. One useful thing we can do is to try to stop antagonizing foreigners.” Benedict went on to call for a non-interventionist foreign policy which might be a bridge too far in the mudpit we find ourselves, but again, after ten years, taxpayers have the right to demand that our government’s policies should be helping rather than hurting our efforts to return to domestic tranquility. We’ve made no progress at all toward independence from foriegn oil that fuses our prosperity with Third World rat nests of corruption and violence around the world. We have squandered our nation’s prosperity with a banking and investment system run amok and therefore destabilized the financial stability of the nations around the world whose economies are tied to ours. We have cultivated relationships with and sustained dictators and tyrants around the world for political expediency and therefore surrendered the moral high ground in international affairs. Finally, our intelligence efforts have been clumsy, brutish, immoral and ultimately ineffective in detecting terrorism here and abroad. And after all of this, the best we can come up with is giving four more years of life to a policy that by no metric can be judged to have stopped those who would do us harm.
Its tempting to close by talking about what Satayana would say about ignoring history, but the best, short term lesson comes from Ben Franklin, who wrote, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Next year is a presidential election year. Most of those who are running are big fans of the Patriot Act. President Obama and whomever the Republican candidate may be need to be grilled over how the government will change in the next four years to ensure that when the Patriot Act is next up for renewal, it will be able to be retired in peace.