By Gary Aldrich
March 28, 2007
The FBI has recently issued a new set of guidelines to agents regarding the authority granted to this powerful law-enforcement agency under the Patriot Act. The guidelines were prompted by a recent investigation by the inspector general's office of the Department of Justice to determine if there had been abuses stemming from these fairly severe law changes.
The investigation found that there have been more than 3,000 instances of agents improperly obtaining phone or other records of those they suspected of breaking the law or engaging in terrorist activity. But, these improprieties were predictable the moment President Bush signed the Patriot Act into law.
Concerns voiced by many protectors of personal liberty, such as former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, were downplayed or ignored altogether in favor of feel-good reassurances from the proponents of big government who claimed rigorous oversight and tightly written policies would serve to protect our rights.
"Perfect" or even "near-perfect" in any federal agency will never exist, even in the vaunted FBI. Well-intentioned agents are people, too. No matter how careful FBI agents try to be, mistakes are often made by those who have simply misunderstood the complicated instructions.
The only "perfect" in a discussion about our personal freedoms is the freedom itself. Liberty and the foundational concepts that fathered the belief that liberty exists for all of mankind are the standards, and everything else falls short of perfection. Liberty is the jewel, as Patrick Henry stated. Everything else is mere setting, or decoration.
The Founding Fathers knew this and wrote our Constitution to set aside those precious rights that should never be compromised. To put a finer point on it, they added a Bill of Rights for those who needed plainer English. The message: The government has no right to take the liberty or freedom of a single innocent citizen.
Sadly, too many would set liberty aside in times of terror and war, to be able to protect innocent lives; thus we have the Patriot Act. Another problem with this law is that it was fashioned by Congress. Any document that comes out of that rendering plant is guaranteed to be imperfect. Consider the current legislation that is supposed to fund the war on terror. It is riddled with pork-barrel spending projects which have nothing to do with national security, totaling billions of dollars.
If Congress can do this to a war-funding budget, then how can we be convinced that the Patriot Act only impacts the rights of terrorists? Alas, the Patriot Act was also used to address other criminal activity unrelated to terrorism. As the Patriot Act was being cobbled together, interested parties, including federal agencies who were seeking to "fix" a multitude of impediments to enforcement, lined up to lobby for their favorite issue.
Today the FBI can enter your home, search around, and doesn't ever have to tell you it was there. You could be perfectly innocent, yet federal agents can go through your most personal effects.
When considering new laws, a test of impact on liberty should be required. We obsess over the environment and demand an impact study before we allow construction projects to move forward. Do we consider our liberty to be worth less than a snail or a rodent?
The federal government does not have even one small agency that spends a minute to discover new or expanded rights for our citizens. There is no agency whose mission is to find and discard unneeded laws, each one having some impact on liberty.
How foolish to assume that any branch of the federal government is watching out for our freedoms. Today the federal government serves somebody's idea of a utopian collective good. Patrick Henry's style of plainspoken English has been replaced by legalistic doubletalk that allows bureaucrats to trample our liberties. Freedom of speech and the freedom to bear arms are threatened. Any freedoms that may offend an aggrieved special-interest group are snatched away without regard to the future impact on our national character, such as the virtues of thinking independently or questioning authority.
Patrick Henry stood up for liberty when there was no constitution and at a time when he could have been hanged for speaking his mind. Surely we can stand up for our liberty today when the only risk to us is an angry stare from a big-government bureaucrat.
Gary Aldrich is a former FBI agent who served in the Clinton White House.