TCS Daily

Smarter, Harder Patriot

By Stephen W. Stanton - July 8, 2003 12:00 AM

The Patriot Act gave the government sweeping authority to gather intelligence on American citizens and imprison them for long periods without due process. Ever since the law was passed, libertarians and liberals have been decrying the government's newfound ability to curtail and even deny our cherished civil liberties.

At the same time, many on the right (and indeed, the middle) have demanded even more draconian measures to secure our nation, a Patriot Act II. They claim these laws are a necessary first line of defense against unimaginable acts of terror. Without the existing Patriot Act, maybe terrorists would have already knocked down Chicago's Sears Tower or Seattle's Space Needle. Perhaps they would have wiped out urban centers with ricin, anthrax, small pox, or more insidious chem and bio agents. Advocates of another Patriot Act remind us their goal is neither to harass law abiding citizens nor to torment penny ante pickpockets.

In this debate, both sides have a point. The Patriot Act indeed violates freedoms we hold dear. For years, we forced the police to obtain a warrant to tap a phone or intercept a private message. Americans took this precaution because we did not want to give the government carte blanche to spy on us. Thousands of criminals have been set free over the past few decades because authorities did not have proper authorization to conduct their searches. Letting some guilty dirtbags out of jail on technicalities was a price were willing to pay as a society to protect our privacy, and indeed our freedom.

Even with the new Patriot Act, there are still many holes bad people can slip through. For example, I could be a pretty effective terrorist if I wanted to. It only takes the three P's: Patience, planning and perversity. There are other factors in my favor that would facilitate a "successful" career in terrorism. I have a decent head on my shoulders. I am a U.S. citizen. I have a few connections here and there and a degree or two. Plus, I'm blonde, so nobody would suspect me, as I do not fit the profile. I could take as long as I needed to devise and implement my little schemes. I could pull a "Shawshank Redemption", making progress millimeter by millimeter until I reached my unlawful goal years from now. Nobody would catch me until it was too late. Then again, if I were a terrorist, I would not worry too much about being captured so long as I accomplished my mission.

(Side note: Some readers may object to the preceding paragraph on the grounds that I am equipping terrorists with too much information. To those readers, let me say this: Never assume your enemies are idiots. People who spend months or years plotting our destruction have long since considered all of the nonspecific information in this column.)

Another Patriot Act is not the answer. When it comes to law enforcement, quantity is no substitute for quality. More surveillance tools will not help if the authorities already misuse the ones they have. Would you expect schoolteachers to become better educators if you gave them additional copies of grossly inaccurate textbooks?

Law enforcement officers work hard, and they do a good job of catching criminals. Their task is made all the more difficult by having to work around our extensive civil liberties (which I enjoy and want to keep). Even after apprehending the bad guys, a revolving door justice system often squanders police efforts, turning cops into catch-and-release fishermen. They arrest petty criminals only to set them free a few hours later. Unfortunately, they cut loose some big fish in the process.

Crimes are like cockroaches: The crime you see is probably just one of hundreds. Petty criminals are often big trouble. Many of the wildest police chases originate from a simple traffic violation. A police officer attempts to pull over a motorist for a minor infraction, and the driver makes a break for it. Unbeknownst to the cop, the suspect may be a car thief, rapist, or murderer. If the suspect simply pulled over and presented a fake or stolen ID, the police officer may have simply issued a citation and treated the incident as a routine traffic stop.

Sounds implausibly easy, right? Wrong. False identification is more common than you might think. Deceiving the police is sometimes easier than getting into a bar underage.

Last month, an old acquaintance of mine was picked up for a misdemeanor. Strict libertarians would consider this particular crime "victimless", though I am not sure I agree. For the sake of privacy, I will call this person "Bob" (true story, fake names). Bob is still in jail as I write this.

It turns out that Bob was already arrested a few times. Every time the police booked Bob, he used a different name (Tom, Dick and Harry). In fact, Bob even used his brother's Social Security number a few times. In spite of this misdirection, Bob still had two warrants out for his arrest under his real name.

If Bob were convicted of all currently outstanding charges under his various names, he could be locked away for over a dozen years. However, to answer for these crimes, Bob would have to give away his true identity. Then he would face several counts of identity theft and false identification on top of the unresolved legal troubles which he sought to escape. Bob might spend more than half of his life making license plates.

Then again, maybe not. Bob has been fingerprinted at least four times, yet Bob is still maintaining an alias, and his captors are none the wiser. He will likely appear before a judge as a "first time offender". He will ask for leniency, and he will probably get it. Even if found guilty, he may be let go immediately after his court appearance. Inmates often receive credit for time served while awaiting trial, and without prior convictions, Bob's current alter-ego may only receive a one-month sentence.

There are two reasons nobody has bailed out Bob this time. First, none of his friends or family members is willing to help perpetrate another identity fraud. More importantly, they expect him to die from his addiction after he makes it back to the streets. One of his family members will probably tell the prosecutor of Bob's ID shenanigans, if only to save his life.

You might be asking "What about Bob? This column is about the Patriot Act." True that. Bear with me.

Bob was not hiding out; he was not on the lam. All four (or more) arrests occurred in the same section of the same medium-sized city. He was regularly seen in public making money to feed an addiction by stealing or worse. Yet law enforcement authorities and the judicial system were unable to figure out that Bob was also Tom, Dick and Harry. They did not match any of the four sets of fingerprints taken after four arrests in the same city. They did not recognize Bob after (at least) four appearances in the same courthouse.

Now consider what would have happened if Bob the junkie were really Bob the terrorist. He would have been able to perpetrate the same repeated identity fraud if he had been caught stealing chemicals to produce explosives. (Lifting a few bags of fertilizer is a minor misdemeanor.) While Junkie Bob called concerned family members that tried to set him straight, Terrorist Bob would contact a network of willing accomplices. Junkie Bob's friends kept him in jail, and encouraged him to come clean. Terrorist Bob's pals would bail him out, change his name, and help him continue a cycle of crime culminating in a devastating terrorist act. So long as Bob's fingerprints did not match up and nobody recognized his face, terrorist Bob would go free in 24 hours after each arrest.

Nothing in the Patriot Act or the rumored Patriot Act II would compensate for such sloppy police work. How safe does that make you feel?

Politicians complain about hardworking people overstaying their student visas because we do such a poor job of tracking them. Personally, I think keeping track of our criminals is much more important. While each student is a potential risk, each convict is a proven criminal.

Message to the terrorists: If you really want to disappear into society, hang out with junkies. If the feds get too close, roll up you sleeve and shoot up. You'll blend in with the other human debris. If you get caught with a load of bomb making components, just say you stole them to raise drug money. They will believe you. When you get arrested, use an alias. Pretend you lost your ID years ago. Odds are, you will be out in no time.

Message to legislators and law enforcement: Take fingerprinting seriously. Actually run each set of fingerprints against a national database after each arrest. Do the same with facial recognition software. You will put far more career criminals behind bars and keep the streets safer. When people enter this country on a visa, add their faces and fingerprints to the database. If we do a good job of keeping track of the bad guys and aliens, we will not have to violate the rights of law-abiding citizens.

Before we seriously consider another Patriot Act, allow me propose a simple, elegant, legal, and largely uncontroversial measure: Work smarter, then harder. Learn to use the law enforcement tools we have effectively before fiddling with the Fourth Amendment and curtailing our civil liberties.

Instead of tapping my phone and reading my emails, go make sure the Bobs of the world are properly identified and locked up securely.

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