Thursday, July 21, 2005

Praxywatch: ACLU vs. the Patriot Act

I'm starting up a new regular feature here on Orthopraxy called "Praxywatch" in which I plan on critically analyzing individual pieces of propaganda I run across. First on the chopping block is this little number from the ACLU that waxes paranoid about the Patriot Act (make sure you don't have Flash blocked; link doesn't work):

Oh shit, the government's gonna get all up in my bank account and hospital records and learn about that one time I huffed nitrous with Steve in the parking lot of Lollapalooza '93 Topeka in my 85 Dodge pickup . . . right? That looks like the implication. The ad points to the ACLU's anti-Patriot mini-site, which explains in further detail why we should be up in arms about this misguided piece of legislation. The front page warns us that it enables the feds to, among other transgressions, "COLLECT INFORMATION ABOUT WHAT YOU READ, WHAT YOU BUY, YOUR HOTEL VISITS AND YOUR MEDICAL HISTORY (Sec. 215)" (their caps). In the Talking Points section, the Act is compared to the Japanese internment during WWII and McCarthy's anticommunist witch hunts. This page proceeds to portray the law as inimical to freedom, with a subtext that there's some shadowy Big Brother out there just waiting to get his hands on your personal info.

But propaganda isn't necessarily false; indeed, in this country, it's rare to find a political ad that isn't strictly fact-based. Spinning technically-true information to one's advantage is the American propagandist's best tactic. Given this, how do the ACLU's claims stack up against unspun reality? It's tough to say. We don't have many specifics on how the Patriot Act has been applied, although our president assures us that law enforcement officials now rely on it as an essential tool on the domestic front of the War on Terror. So the ACLU's right on the substance when it asserts that the Act "give[s] the White House a lot more power at the expense of Congress and the courts and undermine[s] the structural checks and balances intended to safeguard our liberty," especially since Bush is calling on Congress for a wholesale renewal with no talk of potential revision.

The site talks a good deal about specific implications of the law without citing more than isolated fragments of key provisions. The ACLU's most alarming claims concern Section 215 (mentioned above), which probably inspired the Flash ad. But will the Patriot Act really allow the government to root through the reams of data that are out there in various databases about each of us and if so, will it use that power against normal citizens like us? We can't say much about the latter, but as for the former, let's go to tape:
`(a)(1) The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or a designee of the Director (whose rank shall be no lower than Assistant Special Agent in Charge) may make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution. (emphasis mine)
Okay, that does look pretty scary. But then again, maybe it is essential for maintaining national security; the overwhelming Congressional majorities that originally approved it in 2001 seemed to think so. So what it comes down to is this: Should you trust the government to apply this provision fairly and solely against credible security threats? The answer is left up to the reader, albeit with a healthy hortatory shove toward "No."

I give this propaganda campaign a B+ for sticking to the issues, appealing transparently to American values, and using a minimum of disinformation. The main suggestion I'd have for the site is to place a link to the full text of the Patriot Act prominently on the front page and make it clear that only certain provisions require repeal or modification.

Update: The House has just voted to extend key provisions of the Patriot Act, including Section 215. A similar measure is currently under review in the Senate.