One of the more controversial provisions of the Patriot Act was to broaden the “sneak-and-peek” power for federal law enforcement officials. The provision allows investigators to conduct searches without informing the target of the search. We were assured at the time that this was an essential law enforcement tool that would be used only to protect the country from terrorism. Supporters argued that it was critical that investigators be allowed to look into the lives and finances of suspected terrorists without tipping off those terrorists to the fact that they were under investigation.

Civil libertarian critics warned that the federal government already had this power for national security investigations. The Patriot Act provision was far too broad and would almost certainly become a common tactic in cases that have nothing to do with national security.

But this was all immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and there was little patience for civil libertarians. The massive Patriot Act of course passed overwhelmingly, including the sneak-and-peek provision, despite the fact that only a handful of members of Congress had actually read it. (Not to mention the public.)

More than a decade later, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has published an analysis on use of the sneak-and-peek power. Just as critics predicted, it’s now a ubiquitous part of federal law enforcement.

Law enforcement made 47 sneak-and-peek searches nationwide from September 2001 to April 2003. The 2010 report reveals 3,970 total requests were processed. Within three years that number jumped to 11,129. That’s an increase of over 7,000 requests. Exactly what privacy advocates argued in 2001 is happening: sneak and peak warrants are not just being used in exceptional circumstances—which was their original intent—but as an everyday investigative tool.

And as critics predicted, it is overwhelmingly used in cases that have nothing to do with terrorism. But even if you’re a cynic, it’s pretty shocking just how little the power is used in terrorism investigations.

Out of the 3,970 total requests from October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010, 3,034 were for narcotics cases and only 37 for terrorism cases (about .9%). Since then, the numbers get worse. The 2011 report reveals a total of 6,775 requests. 5,093 were used for drugs, while only 31 (or .5%) were used for terrorism cases. The 2012 report follows a similar pattern: Only .6%, or 58 requests, dealt with terrorism cases. The 2013 report confirms the incredibly low numbers. Out of 11,129 reports only 51, or .5%, of requests were used for terrorism. The majority of requests were overwhelmingly for narcotics cases, which tapped out at 9,401 requests.

So since the Patriot Act passed, the number of of sneak-and-peeks each year has grown from about 16 per year to over 11,000 in 2013. Meanwhile, not only have the number of sneak-and-peek investigations unrelated to terrorism increased on a massive scale, the percentage of sneak-and-peeks that have anything to do with terrorism continues to drop. In other words, sneak-and-peek is increasingly ubiquitous while the justification for granting the government this power in the first place — terrorism — is not only irrelevant to the tactic’s increasing pervasiveness, it gets more irrelevant every year.

Lots of lessons here. A few that immediately come to mind:

  • Washington establishment types are often dismissive and derisive of the idea that members of Congress should actually be required to read legislation before voting on it — or at the very least be given the time to read it. There’s also a lot of Beltway scorn for demands that bills be concise, limited in scope and open for public comment in their final form for days or weeks before they’re voted on. If you’re looking for evidence showing why the smug consensus is wrong, here is Exhibit A.
  • This is also an argument against rashly legislating in a time of crisis. On Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government failed in most important and basic responsibility — to protect us from an attack. We responded by quickly giving the federal government a host of new powers.
  • Assume that any power you grant to the federal government to fight terrorism will inevitably be used in other contexts.
  • Assume that the primary “other context” will be to fight the war on drugs. (Here’s another example just from this month.) I happen to believe that the drug war is illegitimate. I think fighting terrorism is an entirely legitimate function of government. I also think that, in theory, there are some powers the federal government should have for terrorism investigations that I’m not comfortable granting it in more traditional criminal investigations. But I have zero confidence that there’s any way to grant those powers in a way that will limit their use to terrorism.
  • Law-and-order politicians and many (but not all) law enforcement and national security officials see the Bill of Rights not as the foundation of a free society but as an obstacle that prevents them from doing their jobs. Keep this in mind when they use a national emergency to argue for exceptions to those rights.
  • When critics point out the ways a new law might be abused, supporters of the law often accuse those critics of being cynical — they say we should have more faith in the judgment and propriety of public officials. Always assume that when a law grants new powers to the government, that law will be interpreted in the vaguest, most expansive, most pro-government manner imaginable. If that doesn’t happen, good. But why take the risk? Why leave open the possibility? Better to write laws narrowly, restrictively and with explicit safeguards against abuse.

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