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The Danger of the USA Patriot Act

August 11, 2004

from Revolutionary Worker,

In mid-April George Bush traveled to Buffalo, New York to deliver a speech promoting the USA Patriot Act. He chose Buffalo because it is where six young men, U.S. citizens of Yemeni descent, had been convicted of providing “material support” to terrorists. The men had traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan the spring and summer before 9/11 on a religious sojourn which took them through Al-Qaida training camps. When they came back to Buffalo to resume their lives everything had changed. The government–which watched them for over a year–later claimed a threat had been pre-empted, a “sleeper cell” had been broken up. The men were not accused of doing or even planning anything. The “material support” came down to attending the camp and buying uniforms.

What allowed the government to convict these men are sections of a 1996 law dealing with “material support to terrorism”– a law that has been broadened and strengthened by the USA Patriot Act. That’s why Bush went to Buffalo–to make clear that the Patriot Act is a centerpiece of the whole agenda that is the U.S. war on the world. This an ominous signal, and one that demands a deeper understanding of what the Patriot Act is, how it’s being used, and what it represents.

The 9/11 Backdrop

It was on October 26, 2001, little more than six weeks after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, that U.S. Congress unanimously passed and the President signed a law conferring extraordinary powers on agents charged with protecting the U.S. empire. The law was called “The United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” (USAPATRIOT) Act.

The Patriot Act emerged in a situation of crisis for the U.S. imperialists. As the former Bush and Clinton anti-terror chief Richard Clarke–who was crisis manager in the White House on 9/11–later put it, the attackers “had proven the superpower was vulnerable.”

In the wake of 9/11 the political rulers of the U.S. answered that vulnerability with an escalation of aggression against the world and startling fascist components within its domestic borders. But the passage of the law was more than just a panic response to crisis. It was a “seizing of a crisis” to promote some long-standing needs

The 1996 Law

To understand the Patriot Act it’s helpful to look back a few years to when a bomb blast destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. If you’d turned on your TV as news of this first broke you’d have seen pictures of suspected “Arab terrorists” with newscasters insinuating this was an act of foreign terrorism. Of course, the Oklahoma City bombing turned out to be the work of men who came out of an extreme right- wing movement in the U.S. But regardless, the U.S. rulers used it to push through a law they’d already presented in Congress that targeted immigrants and foreign organizations.

The law was named “The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996” (the “Effective Death Penalty” part had to do with putting severe restrictions on prisoners’ ability to appeal to federal courts to try and get their sentences–including death sentences–overturned). The Act made it illegal for U.S. citizens (and noncitizens) to provide any material support to lawful political or humanitarian activities of any foreign group designated by the Secretary of State as “terrorist.” In explaining this, Georgetown Law professor David Cole said, “People can be punished not for what they do or abet, but for supporting wholly lawful acts of dis- favored groups.”

The law also called for the Secretary of State to create a list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTOs) and the Treasury Department became responsible for blocking funds to those put on the list.

The 1996 law also made it legal to deport immigrants on the basis of secret evidence–evidence the accused could not see, and so could not challenge. The measure in the 1996 law against immigrants presaged the avalanche of moves to marginalize and strip immigrants of any rights within the U.S after 9/11.

All this established major changes in the legal capacity of the government to go after a wide range of groupings and those who sympathized with them, under the catch-all of combating “foreign terrorism.” It laid a firm basis for what was to come.

The Use of Material Support Provisions

The Patriot Act broadened the reach of those the government could claim were supporting terrorism and increased prison sentences for such crimes from 10 to 15 years.

It also modified the 1996 law by adding that giving “expert advice or assistance” to terrorists would be illegal. This particular statute has been successfully challenged in a U.S. District Court which termed it “impermissibly vague,” but the government is considering an appeal.

With the Patriot Act, the potential reach of the “material support” provisions are wide. David Cole testified at recent Senate Patriot Act hearings that, “It would include a cab driver who gave a ride to the leader of a foreign terrorist organization who is here to testify at the UN. All the government has to prove is that the cab driver knew that the person was a leader of this organization, and that the organization was designated.”

But there is more to this. “Material support” allows the government a lot of flexibility in snaring those it politically sets its sights on.

Take the example of Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a Saudi Arabian doctoral candidate at the University of Idaho. He is currently on trial for “material support” to terrorism for maintaining websites that in turn had links to sites that the government claims supported “jihad.” Among those set to testify against him are, according to the Washington Post , “Five men recently convicted in terrorism-related cases in Portland, Oregon, Lackawanna, N.Y., and Northern Virginia.” They are supposed to testify that they watched jihadist recruitment videos on one of these websites. In other words some of the very people the government snared in initial “material support” cases are being called to testify (most likely as part of their plea agreements) against others hit with material support charges. The dynamic in place is one of an ever-widening net. No wonder the Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray, testifying before congress, said, “We prefer to be able to charge material support, because frankly…it’s a more user friendly statute.”

All this raises an even larger danger–the use of such laws to launch a broadside against the leaders and organization of revolutionary forces within the U.S. As a recent RW article about attacks on the RCP pointed out, “A particularly dangerous development has been the attempt by the U.S. government to conflate popular communist-led revolutions against reactionary governments with movements guided by reactionary ideologies. Thus the U.S. government has officially designated the Communist Party of the Philippines as well as the Communist Party of Peru as “terrorist’ organizations. In addition, the U.S. has added the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) to a secondary list (of groups not yet `officially designated.’)

“President Bush has also issued an executive order blocking financial transactions with a long list of individual organizations–including the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)–that are accused of posing a “terrorist” threat. The significance of this is that `the making or receiving of any contribution of funds, goods, or services to or for the benefit of those listed or conspiracy to do so,’ is now a serious federal crime. Individuals, organizations, and movements can now be prosecuted for the `crime’ of standing with the people of the world, since almost any kind of political support could be construed as `services.’ ”

Recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the “USA Patriot Act” were instructive on a number of levels. Court challenges to the broader “material support” definitions have created a need for legal “clarification.” These hearings, however, far from fundamentally questioning this law, were aimed at figuring out how to fine-tune it .

FISA Courts

The Patriot Act itself is something of a hodgepodge; expanding the reach of earlier laws; qualitatively changing definitions of others and creating whole new categories of repression. There are provisions that allow Grand Jury information–that used to be kept secret (though the grand jury itself has been a coercive instrument to force people to give the government information)–to be shared among the FBI and CIA. There are a multitude of provisions for seizing assets and against money-laundering. And there are provisions, on top of the slew of attacks on immigrants, that create a broad class of non-citizens who can be deported or barred from entry to the U.S. simply for political association or statements.

Some of the most outrageous of the Act’s increased surveillance powers is anchored in expanding the reach of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the court that administers it (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court).

Under FISA, once the Court approves an FBI surveillance application it can break into someone’s house, “execute the warrant” and take stuff without even telling their target. According to David Cole, “Searches and wiretaps under FISA may be kept secret from the target, in many cases forever.”
FISA was passed by congress in 1978 amid widespread exposure of rampant government wiretapping, break-ins and dirty tricks–including by the Nixon White House. In other words, in the midst of exposure, and having to officially curtail certain surveillance–a major new mechanism for surveillance was put in place.

FISA was passed ostensibly to protect the country from “agents of a foreign power.” Given the U.S. empire is an imperialist superpower with a rabid desire to maintain and expand its grip on large parts of the world, this is no small matter for them. But FISA has also been used many times to label domestic opponents, such as opponents of the Vietnam war and the murderous U.S. wars in Central America, as agents of a foreign power.

The court is secretive. In October 2001 (before the Patriot Act passed), National Public Radio described how “The seven-member [now 11] FISA court operates in the utmost secrecy, with individual judges hearing applications [for wiretaps or searches] in a windowless, bug-proof room inside the Justice Department.” The judges are appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (William Rehnquist). In all its existence it has never refused an application.

Now with the Patriot Act, the definitions are so broad that the only thing the FBI or Attorney General need do is claim it is relevant to an ongoing investigation. You don’t have to be a suspected foreign agent yourself to come under the reach of a FISA warrant. As Viet Dinh (former Assistant Attorney General who helped write the Patriot Act) told Vanity Fair , they only need to say you may possess “evidence relating to an investigation” on terrorism.

One target of FISA investigation reveals the plane this operates on. The progressive attorney Lynne Stewart has been targeted for her work defending the Islamist cleric Abdel Rahman. The authorities turned their sights on Stewart when Clinton was still president. Over a period of seven years, the government, according to the N.Y. Law Journal made “more than 85,000 audio recordings of voice calls, faxes and computer transmissions ” [emphasis RW ] in this investigation.

In 2002, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved all 1,128 applications brought before it–a record number.


Another part of the surveillance section of the Patriot Act amends FISA so that the FBI “may make an application requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents and other items) for an investigation.” This is in Section 215 of the Patriot Act and it is one of the more widely known and hated parts of the law.

According to the Boston Globe (March 9, 2004), “In a survey last fall of 465 public and 120 private libraries in Illinois by the Library Research Center, seven public libraries reported that they had received requests for information about patrons or circulation records from the FBI, and 17 said other requests came from police and other agencies. Eight said the reason given for the request was a national security investigation.”

There has been an enormous amount of outrage on the part of librarians and others against this. Two hundred fifty- three cities and towns across the U.S. have passed the U.S. have passed resolutions in opposition to this Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Bernard Margolis, president of the Boston Public Library, told the Globe , “If I were presented with a Section 215 request, I would give very serious consideration to informing my trustees about that request and consider going public with it.” Such a stand would be in violation of the Patriot Act which stipulates that “No person shall disclose to any other person (other than those persons necessary to produce the tangible things under this section) that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sought or obtained tangible things under this section.

Surveillance, and Beyond

Soon after the Patriot Act was passed, federal authorities started revamping long-standing protocols on when they could launch non-criminal investigation.

In May 2002, Ashcroft amended the Justice Department guidelines to authorize the FBI to “undertake certain types of investigations–monitoring any gathering open to the public, including religious services; visiting Web sites, electronic bulletin boards and chat rooms; and obtaining information from commercial data-mining services–without any reason to believe that those being monitored may be engaged in or preparing for criminal activity.” This move freed up the FBI to launch many more investigation.

According to Vanity Fair using the Patriot Act and other laws, “Hundreds of surveillance and bugging operations have been launched since 9/11; 113 emergency authorizations for secret warrants were issued in the first year alone–more than twice the number granted in the previous 23 years.” Driving this is an orientation straight out of the film Minority Report. Vanity Fair quotes John Aschcroft in a meeting of top Justice Department people two months after 9/11 saying, “Things are different now. The role of the Justice Department had been altered, its goal now not simply to investigate crimes but to prevent them before they occur.”

The Myth of Sunset

There has been a fair amount of media coverage about how the Patriot Act–or at least chief provisions– will “sunset” in December 2005, giving the impression that much, if not all of the law will lapse. In fact only some of the sections of the Patriot Act dealing with expanded surveillance and the ability to seize records (like library records) are set to expire. Senator Russ Feingold (the only Senator to vote against it) pointed out at the recent hearings, “Most of the Patriot Act is, of course already permanent law. Of the over 150 provisions in the law only 16 provisions are due to expire at the end of 2005.”

So when President Bush called for the Patriot Act to be “renewed” in his State of the Union speech in January 2004, he was gaming people, giving the impression the law was in danger of expiring. He did this to both energize his reactionary base to more fully support it, and to push it further.

Against such a backdrop the Justice Department has already drafted provisions for a “Patriot Act II.” Among the provisions they’d like put into law are the creation of a DNA database of terrorism suspects, the power to wiretap U.S. citizens for 15 days without a court order (after terrorist attacks), the ability to block bail for terrorism suspects, make secret arrests, and expand the federal death penalty to convicted terrorists. The government would also like to revoke the citizenship of anyone who helps an organization they say is terrorist.

And while Bush and Ashcroft push for a more rabid expansion, John Kerry has made clear he supports the heart of the Patriot Act. Kerry voted for the law, and according to a statement by the Kerry campaign he wants “to improve the Patriot Act.” He calls for intensifying information sharing between federal and local police, expanding money laundering provisions, and keeping provisions “that help the war on terrorism.”

The Patriot Act (and other laws it stands on), is extremely dangerous. But unfortunately there’s a lot of confusion about what the law actually is and its implications. And even some who have done good exposure about how this law takes away people’s civil liberties, have proceeded from a certain acceptance of it–on the basis of the need to “keep people safe.”

This outlook goes along with accepting that the war on Afghanistan was just, the measures implemented to “fight terrorism” necessary, and that the government needs to do more to protect people (even if some civil rights have to be sacrificed). But such thinking is fraught with illusions and can lead to a very bad place.

Bob Avakian spoke sharply to this in his talk with Carl Dix in 2002:

“Both on the moral level, in terms of what stand you’re taking–and if you take that stand of ‘protect me any way you will, I don’t care what you do to people all over the world’–there is the fundamental immorality or reactionary nature of that, on the one hand, and also just in practical terms it’s not going to lead to the result you think it will, because the U.S. imperialists have their own agenda and it’s not protecting you. The only thing they care about is maintaining the stability of their rule within the U.S. as a base for their whole international system. They don’t care about the safety of the people in the U.S. If they did, their police wouldn’t be out shooting down people, particularly in the ghettos and barrios, by the hundreds every year. They wouldn’t be brutally attacking any kind of opposition to them. That’s not their agenda. That’s not what they’re concerned about, and it’s not what’s going to result from all this either.”

This is the context the Patriot Act needs to be seen in. It is much more than an intrusive and frightening law that goes to the core of people’s privacy or ease of mind–though it certainly is that. Looked at as a whole what exists now is the legal ability to effectively neutralize or criminalize whole categories of individuals or organizations deemed a threat to the dominant power structure and consequently chilling the larger social environment away from any kind of protest or dissent–just when even more opposition is needed. This is a serious situation that demands sober understanding and determined resistance.

Selected Sources

Senate Judiciary Committee, Hearing on Aiding Terrorists, May 5, 2004

“Patriot Act Gets Boost from 9/11 Hearing,” Christian Science Monitor , April 19, 2004.

Terrorism and the Constitution , David Cole & James X. Dempsey. (The New Press, 2002)

Enemy Aliens , David Cole. (The New Press, 2004)

Electronic Privacy Information Center,

“Warning! The USA Patriot Act and Other Dangerous Things,” ( RW #1206)

Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That ?, Bob Avakian. (Chicago: Banner Press, 1986)

H.R. 3162 The United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, An Act U.S. Department of the Treasury website

“John Ashcroft’s Patriot Games,” Vanity Fair , February 2004

“Lynne Stewart’s Defense Team Is Dealt a Setback: Government Surveillance Found Properly Conducted,” New York Law Journal , September 16, 2003

“Increased Use of Patriot Act in other types of criminal case by law enforcement
authorities,” National Public Radio, All Things Considered , January 12, 2004

Against All Enemies , Richard A. Clarke. (New York: Free Press, 2004)

Kerry statement in response to President’s Radio Address, April 17,

“Reading Over Your Shoulder, The Push is on to Shelve Part of the Patriot Act,” Boston Globe , March 9, 2004

“A United Front–Banks vendors and the government work to ensure PATRIOT ACT compliance,” Bank Systems and Technology , May 1, 2002

“The Money War; USA Patriot Act,” ABA Banking Journal , August 2002.

“New Guidelines on ID Rules Get Warm Industry Greeting,” The American Banker , January 13, 2004

“Bush Draws Terrorism Into Campaign,” New York Times , April 21, 2004

“Saudi Student’s Trial Open in Idaho,” Washington Post , April 18, 2004
For more information see: “Bad Moon Rising” RW #1206 and “What’s Behind the Attacks on the RCP and What’s at Stake” RW #1239, available at

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online,

Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497

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