Council has a second chance to oppose the Patriot Act
In August 2004, City Council squandered an opportunity to take a stand on one of the most vital constitutional issues of this century: the Patriot Act. Passed by Congress in October 2001, the euphemistically titled law expanded the federal government’s surveillance, spying, and search powers on American citizens in the name of national security.
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Two current Councilmembers, Art Hall and Patti Radle, were on Council that summer; each sponsored resolutions opposing the Act. (Hall’s version of resolution was weaker than Radle’s.) Julián Castro, then in his second and final term, was the other supporter of the resolution. Yet, City Council chose not to join more than 400 town and city councils throughout America that have passed resolutions, however symbolic, against the Act. Then-District 2 Councilman Joel Williams called it a “mild issue” in San Antonio.
To characterize such a threat to civil liberties as “mild” demonstrates a lack of understanding about what’s at stake, particularly in light of The New York Times’ recent outing of Bush for authorizing National Security Agency to spy on the phone calls of “suspected terrorists,” and the knowledge that the Pentagon’s database of miscreants includes Quakers and animal-rights activists.
While the Patriot Act still captures the imagination of Bush’s true believers, more conservatives are recognizing the nefarious nature of the law, so much so that when it came up for renewal, Congress defied the Bush Administration and extended it for five weeks, instead of making it permanent.
In ordering Congress to permanently green-light the Act, Bush and his cronies resorted to the same tactic that convinced Congress—most of whom didn’t even read the Act before they voted on it—to pass it more than four years ago: fear.
“If Congress doesn’t extend the Patriot Act before the holiday break,” said Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, “when Americans wake up on January 1, we will not be as safe.”
“The expiration of this vital law will endanger Americans,“ Bush chimed in. News flash: The Patriot Act won’t protect America. It has been in effect throughout the existence of the inefficient and byzantine Department of Homeland Security, which lords over 22 federal agencies including the CIA, FBI, immigration, and FEMA (and what a wonderful job it did protecting New Orleanians). An April 2005 Government Accountability Office report identified DHS as a “high-risk area,” because of its ongoing inadequacies in financial management, information sharing, technology, and leadership, noting that in two years DHS “has had two Secretaries, three Deputy Secretaries, and additional turnover at the Undersecretary and Assistant Secretary levels.”
Moreover, the report concludes, DHS is still not adequately sharing information between agencies—one of the alleged purposes of the Patriot Act—nor has it completed a “strategic plan for research and development of homeland-security technologies.”
After Council’s resolution failed, Express-News columnist Roddy Stinson assailed elected officials for considering it, adding, “no San Antonian has been adversely impacted by any provision of the Act.”
Yet, Stinson can’t conclude with certainty if any of the city’s residents have been spied upon, their homes illegally searched, or their library, credit-card, or medical records seized, because the nature of the Act prohibits that surveillance from being disclosed.
If next year, after the Congressional deal-making, the Patriot Act still contains unconstitutional provisions, the new Council has an obligation to stare down Bush apologists, including Stinson, and vote on a resolution to oppose the law. Justice eroded for one person is justice eroded for all. •
By Lisa Sorg