Slate’s Guide to the Patriot Act

With tomorrow’s anniversary of 9/11, John Ashcroft wrapping up his national tour for promoting the USA Patriot Act, and President Bush asking for more authority under what is being called the first of several Patriot-II laws, I highly recommend people go read Dahlia Lithwick and Julia Turner’s four-part series, A Guide to the Patriot Act, published in Slate. Lithwick and Turner manage to cut through the spin-doctoring on both sides of the debate, presenting the more controversial parts of the Act without shilling for one side or the other, but while still presenting their own analysis and thoughtful interpretation. It’s a breath of fresh air, cutting between punditry and objective-to-a-fault reporting-without-analysis:

How bad is Patriot, really? Hard to tell. The ACLU, in a new fact sheet challenging the DOJ Web site, wants you to believe that the act threatens our most basic civil liberties. Ashcroft and his roadies call the changes in law “modest and incremental.” Since almost nobody has read the legislation, much of what we think we know about it comes third-hand and spun. Both advocates and opponents are guilty of fear-mongering and distortion in some instances.

The truth of the matter seems to be that while some portions of the Patriot Act are truly radical, others are benign. Parts of the act formalize and regulate government conduct that was unregulated — and potentially even more terrifying — before. Other parts clearly expand government powers and allow it to spy on ordinary citizens in new ways. But what is most frightening about the act is exacerbated by the lack of government candor in describing its implementation. FOIA requests have been half-answered, queries from the judiciary committee are blown off or classified. In the absence of any knowledge about how the act has been used, one isn’t wrong to fear it in the abstract — to worry about its potential, since that is all we can know.

Ashcroft and his supporters on the stump cite a July 31 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll showing that 91 percent of registered voters say the act had not affected their civil liberties. One follow-up question for them: How could they know?

If you haven’t read all 300-plus pages of the legislation by now, you should.

Since I haven’t read all 300-plus pages of the legislation myself, I won’t tell you to do so. But I will tell you to go and read Lithwick and Turner’s guide.