Why teach about the USA Patriot Act if the government doesn’t even follow it?
Most fall semesters I teach CS 4001 “Computers, Society, and Professionalism.” I love the class–we cover ethics, argumentation, professionalism, and the social implications of technology. As part of the class, I always teach a lecture about the USA Patriot Act. It’s a labor of love–it takes me three or four times as long to prepare for that class than any other class in the semester, because it’s so complicated and there’s always new news to sort through. Were the “gag order” provisions found unconstitutional or not? What’s the difference between the Protect America Act (which expired) and its new incarnation in the the FISA Amendments Act? The details go on and on. I teach class in a studiously neutral way–There are tradeoffs between security and privacy, and where to draw the line is complicated.
PBS Frontline has come out with a new three-hour documentary “United States of Secrets” which takes on a lot of these issues. I highly recommend watching it. What the US government has been actually recording goes well beyond what is authorized by the Patriot Act. But what I found most depressing about it was not that we are being spied on, but that some government officials apparently have been ignoring the rule of law. For example, the NSA constructed a tenuous theory to give them permission to record basically everything, and the US Attorney General signed off on it. OK, I don’t like the theory, but at least there was an attempt at legality. But later when the Attorney General changed his mind and decided the program was illegal, the NSA just asked the White House Council to sign off on it instead. Really? Mom said no so you ran and asked Dad? (More like Mom said no so you ran and asked your uncle.) And then there are the videos of the President and other officials flat-out lying to the public and to congress. They didn’t say “I can’t discuss that”–they lied and said the surveillance wasn’t happening.
It was heartening to see the whistleblowers profiled in the film. There are plenty of good people who tried to speak up–going through every possible internal proper channel before finally going to the press. Our class covers ethical procedures for when and how to become a whistleblower, and the whistleblowers profiled followed those procedures impeccably. And these aren’t civil libertarian liberals–they are pro-defense conservatives who are appalled by what is going on. But in another depressing turn, the government then goes after the whistleblowers, turning their lives upside-down.
What’s the point of teaching students about a law if what the law says doesn’t change how the government actually operates?