The image most Americans have of the U.S. Constitution is that of an ancient document in flowery script, on parchment pages that show every one of its 220 years — perhaps locked in a protected display case such as that found in the National Archives. Yet the Constitution is hardly a relic, suitable for framing in a museum. Since being adopted on Sept. 17, 1787, it has served as the bulwark of U.S. freedom and as an example for emerging nations around the world. And in situations seen as recently as this month, the Constitution continues to flex its might for the protection of the people’s rights.
Two separate federal courts rejected the Bush administration's claims of the need for secrecy in pursuing its snooping, in one case striking down as unconstitutional portions of the Patriot Act.
Meanwhile, a Justice Department auditor revealed that the government’s watch list of potential terrorists used to screen 270 million travelers a month is so inaccurate that nearly half the initial name matches prove worthless, resulting in the likely escape of terrorists but the detention of innocent citizens.
And a House committee moved to delay the Oct. 1 launch of a Bush administration program to turn spy satellites on domestic targets for the first time, after Department of Homeland Security officials argued in vain that no outside oversight was necessary to protect Americans’ privacy.
This is the constitutional system of checks and balances among the three separate and equal branches of government hard at work. This is also the latest evidence of the wisdom of those who drafted the Constitution, and proof that their fears that one branch left unchecked would overstep its boundaries remain valid.
The need for stronger security became evident after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the weeks after that crisis, anxious lawmakers authorized National Security Letters through the Patriot Act, allowing the FBI to demand private information about Americans without court approval and to ban those receiving the letters to inform the citizens targeted. A Justice Department audit of such letters from 2003 to 2005 found that the process collected and stored inappropriate data. The FBI also conducted much broader searches than those originally envisioned, including gathering data about a suspect’s associates.
That portion of the Patriot Act was struck down by a federal court in New York, largely because the gag order prevents any meaningful judicial review of individual cases.
Balancing the need for security with the constitutional mandates protecting individual freedoms is not an easy task. But Americans should be glad that the Constitution exists to prevent one branch of government from deciding in a vacuum what’s best for the people. On Constitution Day observed Monday, and during Constitution Week which begins then, we all should be thankful for the document which continues to uphold those freedoms generations of Americans died to secure.