(WHTM) — After the September 11 attacks, the country was on high alert, including here in the Midstate.
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“There was a rumor of a train that had some sort of nuclear material that was going to be passing through Harrisburg. Obviously, it wasn’t true,” Mark Cambell said. He was Chief of Staff for Governor Tom Ridge. “That’s what we were dealing with were rumors and potential threats.”
Fears of an imminent attack on Three Mile Island and the term “soft target” became familiar. “I could see 50 threats in this room back then. Just everything,” Mark Holman, an aide to Tom Ridge said.
Congress responded quickly with the Patriot Act, arming law enforcement with new tools to fight terrorism. The act passed nearly unanimously in the Senate as there was only one “no” vote. President George W. Bush signed it into law in October of 2001.
The act expanded surveillance abilities of law enforcement including tapping domestic and international phones made communication between law enforcement agencies easier, increased penalties for terrorism crimes, and expanded the list of activities that would qualify for terrorism charges. The act was credited with stopping dozens of terrorist attacks on US soil.
The Department of Justice says “The government’s success in preventing another catastrophic attack on the American homeland, would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, without the USA Patriot Act.”
“Those successes have often proven to be exaggerated and overstated,” Patrick Toomey, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project said. The project works to defend civil rights and liberties in what it calls government abuses premised on national security. “Congress rushed passage of the Patriot Act ushered in a new era of mass surveillance over the next decade the surveillance expanded dramatically, often in secret,” Toomey said.
And the debate over privacy versus security also expanded. “The government has often posed a false choice between security and privacy, both these values can be protected by ensuring that surveillance tools are targeted on the basis of the appropriate suspicion, that there is court oversight when the government seeks to surveil Americans and that the government is not spying any more broadly than necessary to conduct intelligent operations effectively,” Toomey said.
And it was discovered broad surveillance was happening. The government used a portion of the Patriot Act to collect the phone records of virtually every American. After much outcry, the USA Freedom Act was enacted in June 2015. It addressed some concerns in The Patriot Act like imposing new limits on bulk collection of telecommunication metadata on US citizens by American intelligence agencies.
“One of the critical lessons of the past 20 years is that these types of records can be incredibly revealing. They can disclose religious and political affiliations, medical information, personal relationship, and mental health conditions,” Toomey said.