10th Anniversary of the Patriot Act: "As Despotic as Anything Hitler Came up With"

from the website of Gore Vidal  


It is fair to say that few developments in the current century have troubled civil libertarians, including especially Gore Vidal, more than the enactment of the USA PATRIOT Act, which was signed into law by George W. Bush ten years ago today.

Vidal has compared it with the Alien and Sedition Acts during the John Adams administration, as a result of which around two dozen Americans, including the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, were arrested for expressing views that people in power did not like. He has also said, “The USA PATRIOT Act is as despotic as anything Hitler came up with — even using much of the same language.”

The genesis of the act is particularly troubling. It was written in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when the public mood was a toxic mix of patriotism and panic. It sailed through Congress with bipartisan support, passing in the House by 357 to 66 and in the Senate by 98 to one. Bush signed it six weeks after the attacks, on October 26, 2001.

“They were suspiciously very ready with the Patriot Act as soon as we were hit,” Vidal said, in a 2002 interview for “LA Weekly” with Marc Cooper. “Ready to lift habeas corpus, due process, the attorney-client privilege. They were ready. Which means they have already got their police state. Just take a plane anywhere today and you are in the hands of an arbitrary police state.”

Because the Act rescinded rights long protected by the Constitution while simultaneously expanding the power of the state to intrude into the lives of the citizenry, Vidal and others believe that, with a stroke of his pen, Bush upended the balance of power between the governed and the government, as Vidal noted in an essay published by “The Nation,” in June 2003:

The Patriot Act makes it possible for government agents to break into anyone’s home when they are away, conduct a search and keep the citizen indefinitely from finding out that a warrant was issued. They can oblige librarians to tell them what books anyone has withdrawn. If the librarian refuses, he or she can be criminally charged. They can also collect your credit reports and other sensitive information without judicial approval or the citizen’s consent. Finally, all this unconstitutional activity need not have the slightest connection with terrorism.

In a November 2003 interview with Marc Cooper for “LA Weekly,” Vidal said that under the Act, “an American citizen can be fingered as a terrorist, and with what proof? No proof. All you need is the word of the attorney general or maybe the president himself. You can then be locked up without access to a lawyer, and then tried by military tribunal and even executed. Or, in a brand-new wrinkle, you can be exiled, stripped of your citizenship and packed off to another place not even organized as a country, like Tierra del Fuego or some rock in the Pacific. All of this is in the USA PATRIOT Act.

“The Founding Fathers,” Vidal continued, “would have found this to be despotism in spades. And they would have hanged anybody who tried to get this through the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Hanged.”

In Vidal’s Inventing a Nation: Washington, Jefferson and Adams, a history that focuses, in part, on events around the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he quotes Benjamin Franklin, then 81 years old, writing to encourage passage of the Constitution in spite of his own reservations about its final form.

“I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such,” wrote Franklin, “because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”

Given Franklin’s prediction, in Inventing a Nation, Vidal asks, “Was this always implicit in our origins?”

Is despotism our destiny? The record of the Patriot Act’s first decade suggests it is. Congress, under both Republican and Democratic control, has voted to reauthorize or extend it nearly every time they have had a chance. The latest extensions were signed into effect by President Barack Obama, a former professor of constitutional law.

The law’s aggressively jingoistic name — which is rendered in all caps because “USA PATRIOT” is an acronym for the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001″ — preserves in amber a moment of authoritarian ascendancy under the Bush regime. In fact, at the time that George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act, his approval rating was 88 percent, according to Gallup, just two points off its all time high of 90 percent in the immediate wake of the attacks a month earlier.

“Mark my words. He will leave office the most unpopular president in history.
- Gore Vidal, July 2002

In an interview nine months later, when Bush’s approval rating was still at 69 percent, Gore Vidal made a prediction of his own. “Mark my words,” he said, in July 2002. “He will leave office the most unpopular president in history. The junta has done too much wreckage.”

Keep in mind that Vidal was speaking eight months before the junta’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq, three years before its criminally negligent mishandling of the drowning of New Orleans and six years before the economy collapsed on Bush’s watch.

And yet Gore Vidal was right. By the time George Bush left office in January 2009, he was, hands down, the most unpopular president in the history of presidential polling.

First, he was the object of public disfavor longer than any other president. His approval rating was upside down for his term’s final 39 weeks, “besting” the previous record of 38 weeks held by Pres. Harry Truman.

And, with a 76 percent disapproval rating in November 2008, Bush not only topped Truman’s 67 percent corresponding disapproval rating, his disfavor among the public was ten points higher than Pres. Richard Nixon’s was when he resigned to avoid impeachment, in August 1974.

As memories of Bush’s overseas misadventures and domestic disasters fade, it is possible that future generations will view the USA PATRIOT Act as the darkest stain on his failed presidency.

On the other hand, if the Alien and Sedition Acts are a guide, the Patriot Act could be with us for decades to come. Of the four measures, the Alien Act and the Sedition Act expired in due course, but both the Alien Enemies Act and the Naturalization Act are still in effect in modified form, 213 years after President Adams signed them into law.

If so, future historians may view the moment ten years ago today when Bush signed the the USA PATRIOT Act into law as a tipping point in the slide toward despotism that Benjamin Franklin predicted in 1787 and that Gore Vidal and his fellow civil libertarians still fear today.



World Can't Wait mobilizes people living in the United States to stand up and stop war on the world, repression and torture carried out by the US government. We take action, regardless of which political party holds power, to expose the crimes of our government, from war crimes to systematic mass incarceration, and to put humanity and the planet first.