Dec. 30, 2003 – A new bill allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate the money orders you sent to your family, the items you bought or sold at the pawnshop, and the places youâ€™ve traveled.
And, say privacy advocates, that may not be the worst of it.
On Dec. 13, President George W. Bush signed into law an act giving the FBI dramatically increased domestic surveillance powers. Now, the FBI can - without a judgeâ€™s order - go through previously private financial records from numerous businesses. Observers say that this is the beginning of the administrationâ€™s push to quietly implement Patriot Act II, a comprehensive wish list of expanded police and spying authority that would build on its October 2001 predecessor, the controversial USA PATRIOT Act.
Since the anti-privacy provisions were -- despite the objections of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- hidden inside a routine intelligence appropriations bill and faced almost no public scrutiny, members of congress from both parties fear that this is the start of something big -- "a stealth enactment of the enormously unpopular â€˜Patriot IIâ€™ legislation," according to a statement from Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
How does H.R. 2417, the Intelligence Appropriations Act for 2004, violate privacy and due process? Under prior standards, the FBI was allowed to directly demand records from financial institutions such as banks and credit unions. The new bill changes the definition of a "financial institution" to include many other businesses dealing with large amounts of money -- post offices, auto dealers, travel agents, real estate agents, pawn shops, casinos and others. Using tools called "National Security Letters," the FBI can obtain substantially more information without judicial oversight.
"Implementing Patriot Act II step-by-step seems to be the plan - unless thereâ€™s another terrorist attack, in which case theyâ€™d go for the whole thing," -- Ari Schwartz
Backers say that following a money trail is necessary to solve terrorism. But critics contend that camouflaging policy changes like this undermines the democratic principles of free and open discussion.
Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota, declared her concern that the administration "would seek to include such a non-germane, controversial provision into what should otherwise be a nonpartisan bill." McCollum added, "It is clear the Republican Leadership and the Administration would rather expand on the USA Patriot Act through deception and secrecy than debate such provisions in an open forum."
The tactic of attaching a controversial "rider" to a bill isnâ€™t new - over 40 anti-environmental riders, for example, were passed that way by the last Congress - but some congressional representatives believe this move is significant because it may be a test case for the Bush Administrationâ€™s strategy of implementing an unpopular and dangerous slate of policies incrementally, below the radar screen.
"Implementing Patriot Act II step-by-step seems to be the plan - unless thereâ€™s another terrorist attack, in which case theyâ€™d go for the whole thing," says Ari Schwartz, Associate Director of the civil liberties advocacy group Center for Democracy and Technology.
There are obvious strategic advantages to placing small but dangerous morsels inside larger legislation: it doesnâ€™t draw unwanted attention, and congressional representatives who might vote against anti-liberty elements on their own are less likely to cast a flat-out "no" vote on a broader bill.
This type of piecemeal encroachment on rights, says Jerry Sheehan, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington stateâ€™s legislative director, is "arguably more dangerous in that itâ€™s something thatâ€™s not recognizable immediately. The cumulative effective of a number of small things amounts to a big thing, to be sure. And these things are difficult, if not impossible in some circumstances, ever to reverse."
Plus, when itâ€™s a bill like this one, where the main provisions authorize appropriations for routine intelligence activity that has always been funded by congress, legislators face a political double-edged sword. If they oppose the Patriot Actâ€™s incursions against liberty, they can vote against the entire bill - but may pay a price at the polls.
"If someone votes against this, his opponent could say, â€˜He doesnâ€™t support intelligence gathering,â€™ which isnâ€™t really true," says Jeff Deist, a spokesman for Rep. Ron Paul. Rep. Dennis Moore, a Kansas Democrat, is one who took the risk. Moore explained on the House floor that he only opposed the hidden mandates, but their anti-liberty character would cause him to vote against the entire measure.
Some legislators on each side of the aisle, from liberal Democrats to extreme conservatives like Paul, have always railed against this type of secretive strategy. The issue should speak to members of both parties, Deist says, because administrations change. A conservative who feared Clinton-era Attorney General Janet Reno should not feel any more comfortable with John Ashcroft as a steward of personal liberty, he says.
"We lose our freedom slowly ... Even the whiff of someoneâ€™s privacy someday being invaded ought to be strenuously fought by Congress, in our view," he says.
Since many provisions of the original Patriot Act are up for re-authorization in 2005 as part of a so-called "sunset clause," civil liberties groups say now is a pivotal time. Either the actâ€™s rollbacks of liberty will be curtailed, or liberty will, they say.
"The lesson, to use the tired cliche, is eternal vigilance," says the ACLUâ€™s Sheehan. "The citizenry has to keep plugged in to whatâ€™s going on."