No terrorist act ought to reduce Americans’ precious civil liberties, our greatest treasure and gift to the world. Yet that has been happening in so many ways, such as with the misnamed USA Patriot Act.
The act has even distorted the grand jury process, especially at the federal level. Grand juries were set up in the infant United States more than 200 years ago to protect people from government harassment by acting as a check on government authorities.
The opposite now is happening, as is analyzed in a new study by the Cato Institute, “A Grand Facade: How the Grand Jury Was Captured by Government,” by W. Thomas Dillard, Stephen R. Johnson and Timothy Lynch. (It is available online: cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-476es.html.)
The study notes that grand juries are supposed to look into crimes within their jurisdiction. We would add that grand juries also look into the possible faulty actions of government.
But the Patriot Act has encouraged the use of federal grand juries to violate civil rights. “After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the ensuing frenzy to pass legislation to curb future attacks, the Bush administration and Congress quickly concluded that there were too many limitations on the federal grand jury and that several of those limitations would have to be removed in order to wage a more effective war on terrorism,” the report says.
It notes that grand-jury secrecy is essential because grand juries have “an unparalleled power to obtain information.” Such secrecy prevents the grand jury from becoming a kind of super-prosecution, or star chamber, harassing persons and then sharing the information with a prosecutor or government agency. In the past, any information a grand jury obtained could only be shared with a government agency — a prosecutor, the FBI, etc. — with a court order.
The Patriot Act changed that. “Under the current federal grand jury system, law enforcement may bypass the constitutional ban on unreasonable seizures and the ban on self-incrimination,” according to the Cato report.
Cato urges the restoration of Americans’ traditional liberties by repealing the new, post-9/11 powers given to grand juries. The liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights ought not be abrogated by anything, including grand juries.
The 9/11 attacks were not an excuse to destroy our liberties, but a reason to treasure them all the more.