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A primer on Domestic spying

Judge Andrew P. Napolitano on

"The Framers ... conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone -- the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men." -- Justice Louis Brandeis (1856-1941)

While we were all consumed by impeachment, a pernicious piece of legislation was slowly and silently making its way through Congress. It is a renewal of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The Patriot Act of 2001 has three sections that are scheduled to expire on March 15. One of those sections is the infamous 215, which authorizes the federal government to capture without a warrant all records of all people in America held by third parties.

Do we really want the federal government to spy without warrants? How can Congress, which has sworn to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, legislate such a blatant violation of it? Here is the backstory.

After the Constitution was ratified in 1789, it was soon amended to recognize the existence of natural rights and to keep the government from interfering with them. As Justice Brandeis wrote 140 years afterward, the most comprehensive of those rights was the right to be let alone, which today we call privacy.

To secure that right, the Fourth Amendment was ratified. The purpose of the Fourth Amendment was to prevent the government from utilizing general warrants and to require judicially authorized search warrants issued under narrow circumstances. James Madison, who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, shared the hatred that colonists-turned-Americans had for general warrants.

 

A general warrant was a document issued by a secret court in London authorizing the bearer of the document, usually a British soldier or intelligence agent, to search wherever he wished and to seize whatever he found. The applicant for the warrant needed to demonstrate to the court only that the warrant was intended to unearth something that the government wanted. Because these warrants did not specify the object of the search, there was no limit to them.

Hence Madison's language in the Fourth Amendment preserving privacy but permitting the government to invade it only upon a showing, under oath, of probable cause of crime, and then requiring the warrant to specify in writing the place to be searched or the person or thing to be seized.

After 9/11, in the collective spirit of fear, timidity and subservience to the presidency, and in utter disregard for its members' oaths to uphold the Constitution, Congress enacted the Patriot Act. It permits one federal agent to authorize another federal agent to search and seize whatever the latter wishes to look at and capture so long as it is in the possession of third-party financial institutions.

Over the years, the definition of "financial institution" has been radically expanded by both legislation and presidential executive orders so as to include nearly every conceivable entity that has any records about any person in America -- from banks to hospitals to lawyers to merchants to credit card issuers to telecoms and computer service providers and even the post office.

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