Watching the Watchmen

(Originally published in the Santa Barbara Independent, 8 July 2004)

My idea for this article was to write a sober, rational overview of the USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, originally slated as part of a series for my regular Books Unbound column. I’d planned a close examination of those sections of the Act regarding privacy and free speech as they pertained to the average citizen’s reading habits.

I started around noon today, with a printout of the USA PATRIOT Act and a notebook, ready to zero in on those sections I found appropriate. Beginning with my digital copy, I searched for words like “book,” but came up with only a single use of “books” in section 501(a)(1). Subsequent searches for “library/ies,” “reading,” and “literature” yielded nothing.

Something was wrong. For all of the gloom and doom surrounding the USA PATRIOT Act, I found nothing overtly threatening to my privacy or freedom concerning literature. I read the table of contents, titles, and section headings, turning to any seemingly salient paragraph. Ten hours have passed, and I’m still in the dark, only this time I’m even more alarmed. Let me tell you why.

The USA PATRIOT Act is huge, it’s 173 pages long and broken into 10 sections (or, Titles). Title VI: “Providing for Victims of Terrorism, Public Safety Officers, and Their Families” does indeed seem worthwhile, if not noble. But other Titles are at best vague, such as Title V: “Removing Obstacles to Investigating Terrorism” or Title IX: “Improved Intelligence.” Still others are highly suspect, for example Title II: “Enhanced Surveillance Procedures” or Title IV: “Protecting the Border.”

The catch: The USA PATRIOT Act is not a self-contained document detailing the provisions of this new law. No, instead it’s 173 pages of amendments to existing laws, with cross-references and citations throughout, specifying changes in verbiage that then alter a host of already signed legislation. While I’m sure this might be a normal method of creating new legislation, I find it nonetheless frightening that the USA PATRIOT Act is even more overwhelming and all-encompassing than I had originally thought. Here’s an example, taken from one of the Titles of main concern to librarians and booksellers:

Title II: Enhanced Surveillance Procedures
Section 201. Authority to Intercept Wire, Oral, and Electronic Communications Relating to Terrorism.
Section 2516(1) of title 18, United States Code, is amended –
(1) by redesignating paragraph (p), as so redesignated by section 434(2) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-132; 110 Stat. 1274), as paragraph (r); and
(2) by inserting after paragraph (p), as so redesignated by section 201(3) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (division C of Public Law 104-208; 110 Stat. 3009-565), the following new paragraph:
(q) any criminal violation of section 229 (relating to chemical weapons); or sections 2332, 2332a, 2332b, 2332d, 2339A, or 2339B of this title (relating to terrorism); or

And that is the total text of Title II, Section 201. Everything in the USA PATRIOT Act pertaining to the government’s right to spy on you is right there. See if you can follow this: the above Section 201 specifies amendments to laws in an entirely different document, The United States Code, citing specific changes to the subsection (“1”) of a section (“2516”) of a Title (“18”) within that other document; further, this subsection-of-a-section-of-a-title has already been previously amended by two other, entirely separate laws, and the specific text for this amendment cross-references seven other sections of the aforementioned United States Code.

And it goes on and on like that for 173 pages, with 10 Titles and a combined 156 Sections of cross-references and amendments to other, pre-existing laws. The last Title (X) is close to the average with 16 sections. It’s called “Miscellaneous.”

All of this was submitted and approved — by an overwhelming majority of both Democrats and Republicans in both houses – over roughly 48 hours. Yes, I’ve got a copy of the United States Code, and yes, I’m reading the sections cited in Titles like the one above. It’s slow going.

At this point, I will not take a blanket position either for or against the USA PATRIOT Act. Nor will I question the validity of the legislation solely because it comprises references and amendments to other documents. But I will continue my scrutiny of the Act in future columns, and I will continue to insist on the preservation of our inalienable rights as endowed by our Creator, as we draft new legislation for the common good. All along, I thought that’s what our elected officials were charged with doing.

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