December 03, 2004

PATRIOT Not a Uniter

Wading through The Century Foundation's Defeating the Jihadists: A Blueprint for Action, I stumbled upon this bit in Chapter 6: "The 9/11 Commission's recommendation of an outside, civil liberties board should be adopted."

You see this sort of thing everywhere, but it reminds me of a point I've been meaning to make. The significance of the PATRIOT Act, I think, should not be understood in terms of its actual policy content. For the most part, the act reiterated a lot of intelligence-sharing and warrant stuff that already existed prior to 9/11, but simply wasn't being taken advantage of. A lot of the new provisions, meanwhile, that really raise the hackles of civil liberties groups—allowing federal officers to seize medical, business, library, and educational records, for instance—don't do a whole lot of good.

The real significance is all in the politics. After 9/11, remember, it would have been possible to make some significant tweaks in law enforcement and surveillance policies in order to make the FBI and others far more effective at home. Even the liberal consensus at the time was trending towards a policy that curtailed some civil liberties in the interest of security. But George W. Bush apparently wanted a politicized act that would drive liberals into a Bush-hating frenzy and hence "weak on terror", regardless of how inappropriate the actual policy was. It worked, and as Peter Beinart has pointed out, the result has been bad for liberals. But it's also been bad for national security, since we no longer have anything like a consensus on how to balance counterterrorism and civil liberties. A "civil liberties board" as proposed above shouldn't be necessary—these things tend to hamper and intimidate domestic intelligence over time—but that's the price you pay for divisive policy.
-- Brad Plumer 1:02 AM || ||