National security letters demonstrate
hypocrisy in the Bush administration
Chelsea Moore, Staff
November 20, 2005
Without even knowing, virtually any American could have their phones tapped
into at any time, their e-mail account traced, their house searched, as well as
their financial information disseminated to various agencies across the
In the past year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has dispersed over
30,000 national security letters to financial and communications institutions
in the U.S.. These letters, also called "subpoenas," demand that each company
release detailed information about their patrons, and permanently bar them from
disclosing to anyone, including those being investigated, that they received
The scope of terrorist investigations in the U.S. broadened substantially
after 9/11; when, nearly two months after, the Patriot Act was enacted "[t]o
deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to
enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes."
As a result of this antiterrorism legislation, the FBI was granted a
significant expansion of power, permitting them the authority to investigate
not only suspected terrorists and spies, but also any business or personal file
they consider relevant to a terrorist inquisition.
Public and media attention have been drawn into the controversial debate
surrounding the Patriot Act, as recent efforts to challenge it have been
expressed through the lower courts. In August of this year, a library in
Connecticut summoned the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the federal
government after having received a national security letter. Because
the plaintiff was not even permitted to discuss the letter with a lawyer, nor
engage in debate about the Patriot Act and this provision, they argued it
violated their right to free speech.
Another similar case, made by an Internet service provider, surfaced in New
York after they, too, received a letter. In both incidences the presiding
judges ruled that Section 2709, which accorded the Bureau the authority to use
letters without judicial oversight and prevented public disclosure of the
letters, violated amendments of the constitution. However, both await a review
by the appeals court.
The use of national security letters is by no means new to FBI
investigations, but since the enactment of the Patriot Act, letters no
longer require the approval of a judge.
Furthermore, as of October 2003, time limitations on the secrets learned
though these letters were removed, allowing the Bureau to withhold all
information indefinitely. Prior to this change, federal agents were required to
destroy all documents of irrelevance to a terrorist investigation, and rightly
The vigorous attempts made by the American government to defend the blatant
abuse of the Patriot Act illustrate precisely the hypocrisy that has dominated
the Bush administration. The sudden use of their amplified power has overridden
judicial law and eliminated the means by which their power is checked when they
use it to spy on those who have elected them.
The issue of accountability is an important one for the very reason that it
is fundamental in a democratic society. Many may argue that it is first and
foremost necessary to secure the state and allow the FBI to engage in the
necessary means that entail hunting down the terrorists. I'm sure
Machiavelli would have agreed that the means of squashing civil liberties would
justify the end.
But what if the end result was a society secure from terrorists but also
full of fear and oppression? Who's to say that this possibility may be
ruled out if no one besides the government, who may or may not be accountable,
has the power to prevent it from occurring in the first place?
Perhaps a more suitable measure of judging whether or not the implications
of the Patriot Act are justifiable would be to calculate the pros and cons of
the end. This follows the counsel of Leon Trotsky, who once stated that "[t]he
end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the
It should also be noted that the fundamental principle of liberal
democracies should not be forgotten. This principle is that all individuals are
equal in that they share the same liberties and each are accorded the right to
vote. However, it is more important to examine the assumptions that underlie
this principle. The assumptions are that human beings are for the most part
rational and, therefore, inherently good.
It's fair to pose the question of whether or not the Bush
Administration has faith in democratic principles at a time when insecurity
dominates their political position. This question is especially justified after
over 30, 000 different organizations have received letters from federal agents
compelling them to release their patrons' files because they have not
been ruled-out as potential terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.
The fact that the government has not excluded what could be estimated at
hundreds of thousands of people from committing such atrocities or contributing
to them strongly suggests that the government is accusing the very same people
it has sworn to protect and, therefore, abandoning the fundamental principle of
The most ironic part, however, is that while the Bush administration has
been actively withdrawing from this popular framework of a liberal democracy on
a domestic level, internationally, it has been very aggressive in exhorting
other states to adopt this framework. The extent of the latter has severely
discredited the values of the Bush Administration and propagated the notion
that hypocrisy dictates U.S. policy, not democracy.
Chelsea Moore is a News Reporter for the Manitoban and a second-year global
political economy student.
The Fourth Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their
persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and
seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable
cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place
to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.