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Column - Patriot Act powers must be scrutinized

I wasn't very surprised to learn the National Security Agency had such an all-inclusive surveillance network that included virtually every American's phone calls and internet interactions.

I wasn't too surprised because as soon as I saw the Twin Towers falling down on 9/11, my dread horror was instantly followed by the thought that our civil liberties are bound to be infringed upon. Such a vicious attack out of the blue sky, I just knew, would require a massive retooling of all intelligence-gathering methods, foreign and domestic. And most of that gathering of information would, by necessity, require lots of secrecy and lots of spying.

Prompted by the terrorist attacks, the so-called Patriot Act was approved by the U.S. Congress in 2001 and allowed the NSA to expand its massive surveillance powers. The Patriot Act is troublesome because it is too open-ended and it grants powers that are kept from our scrutiny. Such powers can be dangerous and downright sinister, as has been proven time and again in the world's vile dictatorships.

We Americans would like to think that proper congressional oversight and built-in checks and balances would prevent such abuses, but how can we know that for sure? Why, for example, does the NSA need to have access to virtually every phone call in the United States? As I understand it, by compiling lists of all phone numbers and calls made, experts can "connect dots" concerning terrorist communications and find out what they're plotting. I don't understand that and probably never will, because their explaining exactly how it works would tip off terrorists.

In cases of widespread spying, some say, "Well, if you doing nothing illegal, you have nothing to worry about." That's a foolish reassurance. In the 1970s, a "no-knock" drug law was approved that gave agents the right to burst into suspected drug places without knocking. We were told only the bad-guy druggies should fear such a law. Not so. On many occasions, drug agents mistakenly broke down the doors of innocent, law-abiding residents. In one tragic incident, agents shot and killed a grandmother who was rocking her grandbaby.

The trouble with the Patriot Act, and all other powers that have no direct citizen oversight, is that such powers can be extended and used at the slightest pretext and can quickly reach the point of overkill. It's a bit like letting a mad genie out of a bottle.

The visionary British author George Orwell continues to "speak to us" across time. His cautionary novel, 1984, published in 1949, is about a society controlled by massive surveillance and all forms of mind control under the power of Big Brother, the Inner Party leader. Besides constant surveillance into people's private lives, the Big Brother functionaries keep people cowed through the complete degradation of language so that words come to mean the opposite of what they should mean. The Ministry of Love, for example, conducts torture and brainwashing. The Ministry of Truth takes care of propaganda and historical revisionism. The world of the novel, eerily so, is very much like that of North Korea.

Orwell wrote his sinister book long before ubiquitous computers and decades before the Internet and cell phones. Big Brother's surveillance methods were rather "quaint" at that time: big TV monitors aimed at people in every nook and cranny of their lives, and people snooping and tattling on one another as they did under Hitler and Stalin.

Today's dazzling technology makes the possibility of massive, intrusive, unnecessary surveillance much more likely. Of course, we would like to think there are good, responsible people overseeing these spy programs, but how can we know that?

Another great novelist, Sinclair Lewis, wrote a book entitled It Can't Happen Here, in which he proceeds to show quite convincingly that the forces of fascism could, indeed, "happen here." There's no doubt we need some Patriot Act provisions in the (probably never-ending) fight against terrorists, but we've reached the time when that Act must be scrutinized to ensure it can stop the bad guys dead in their tracks without trampling wholesale on good people's liberties. And that's a tall order.

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Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at