Probable Cause is that delicious freedom that keeps the police from breaking down our doors to satisfy their whim that something illegal might be going on there. It’s what keeps America from becoming a police state. When the cops stop you for a traffic violation, they can’t search your car from top to bottom, because they have no probable cause to do so. Likewise, a judge isn’t going to give them a search warrant to go through your house unless they have a damned good reason and, up until now, that damned good reason was called probable cause.
Up until now. That little-known and less paid attention to fast-shuffle called the USA Patriot Act has just made searching your car or house look like amateur-night. The USA Patriot Act, the one the House and Senate at least had some opportunity to ponder, is not the one they voted into law. That changed and enlarged piece of legislation (with the same name) was substituted at the 11th hour by John Ashcroft, then Attorney General and now no longer in government because his attacks on the constitution were so blatant even this administration could not defend them.
Ashcroft redefined National Security Letters (NSL), a vehicle from the ‘70s that a judge had to approve in order for the FBI to carry out secret surveillance in espionage or terrorism cases. Pretty serious stuff. Lots of probable cause needed and, even then, less than 300 were asked for and approved each year.
Now, an FBI field supervisor can use such a weapon at his sole discretion and their use has increased a hundredfold to over 30,000 per year.
Yeah, but this is terrorist stuff, right? Don’t count on it. The information allowed to be collected describes where a person makes and spends money, with whom he lives and lived before, how much he gambles, what he buys online, what he pawns and borrows, where he travels, how he invests, what he searches for and reads on the Web, and who telephones or e-mails him at home and at work.
NSLs were flying in LasVegas during the 2003 Christmas-New Year holiday. On a tip about a possible
terrorist attack, every hotel guest, everyone who rented a car or truck, every lease on a storage space, and every airplane passenger who landed in the city became of interest to the FBI. The tip was a dud.
Were you there? Do you know that your most extensive personal and financial records are now a part of an FBI database . . . forever. You are not allowed to know you were the target of such a letter and yet over a million Vegas visitors were. The records are not expunged, but are available to any government agency that wants them.
Are you comfortable with that?
Let me imagine a scenario. Your son or daughter attends XYZ University. A college buddy, intrigued by what’s going on in the Middle East spends a good deal of time on Al Jazeera, the Muslim News web site and he talks about it a lot and attracts some attention and the FBI pulls an NSL on him. He doesn’t know it, because he is not allowed to know it. Therefore none of his friends know it either, as they go on about their college life. On his list of phone numbers is your son or daughter’s number, ‘cause they’re good buddies, right? On your son or daughter’s phone list is you . . . you following me?
Bingo! Congratulations, you are now the unwitting and forever-unknowing owner of a full blown FBI dossier in your name, as well as others in your wife’s name, your boss’ name, your golf buddies and the woman you’ve been having an affair with, if that’s the case. And you asked if this was for terrorists, right? Those 30,000 harmless NSLs automatically opened investigations on the guy who knew the guy who knew the guy. 30,000 very quickly and easily becomes thirty million . . . no one will ever know.
And there is absolutely not one single shred of effective oversight. Yet the bozos who dreamed all this up are the same bunch that brought you FEMA, Homeland Security and the Iraq War, all of them now playing at a theatre near you.
Nice, huh? Probable cause rode off into the sunset, side by side with John Ashcroft on a horse called the USA Patriot Act.