Tuesday, November 11, 2003

The Patriot Act and 'little platoons'

Yet another insidious feature of the USA Patriot Act, from today's Review-Journal: It forces banks to pry into the private financial dealings of people who serve in voluntary associations -- the "little platoons" celebrated by de Tocqueville (and later, Charles Murray) that make America a wonderfully compassionate, dynamic society; the law also requires the banks to share that information with John Ashcroft's Big Platoon aka the U.S. Justice Department.

This is the story of Las Vegas resident Rebecca Foster, who offered to serve on the board of her homeowners association and discovered that the bank controlling the association's accounts demanded the dates of birth, Social Security and driver's license numbers for anyone who had check-signing privileges. From the story:

The personal information was necessary, the bank said in the Aug. 27 letter, "to look for any derogatory banking information" and "to check them against the government's terrorist list."

A DOJ flack dodged the issue when queried by reporter Frank Currieri.

(Spokesman Mark) Corallo said banks and financial institutions already seek personal information from individual customers to ensure identity and to study their credit histories.

And the government, by law, does not need to establish probable cause when going after someone's financial records or banking history, he said.

But this is irrelevant, as Gary Peck, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, told me. The issue has nothing to do with grand juries and probable cause, but instead with illegitimately snooping into the financial affairs of every person who volunteers with the local Boy Scouts, Kiwanis Club, or church building committee. "This mandate shreds the fabric of American democracy," Peck said. He's right. And it's past time defenders of the Patriot Act on the right (including the folks at The Wall Street Journal edit page and National Review) fess up to this fact.

ADDENDUM: I should point out that Edmund Burke first ID'd "little platoons," long before de Tocqueville or Murray. (I knew that.)

Also, in an e-mail, Eugene Volokh points out that the bank may be the actual culprit here. By ordering members of the board to provide info which it then may make available to the feds, the bank is engaging in a shameless bit of CYA ... and now that a board member has complained, the bank blames the Patriot Act. As Eugene says, banks have been forced to cough up all sorts of private data to prosecutors (with or without court orders) for years. My former Investor's Business Daily colleague John Berlau provided a chilling overview of these earlier laws in the November Reason's cover story (not yet available online). Thanks, Eugene. Doesn't mean there aren't serious problems with the law that shouldn't be fixed (as in its abuse as a vehicle to gather information on the non-terrorist targets in the Las Vegas strip club corruption probe) ...

ADDENDUM, PART DEUX: In a follow-up e-mail, Eugene says the true outrage here is that, notwithstanding the complaints about the Patriot Act by my buddy Gary Peck and me, the DOJ is and has been forcing banks to turn over individuals' records without citing probable cause -- something the DOJ spokesman admits, too eagerly IMHO. As usual, Eugene is right. One salutary (if unintentional) consequence of the passage of the Patriot Act is the fact that it has attracted scrutiny that other, earlier, equally heinous anti-privacy legislation never elicited. Now what are the chances Congress will step in and fix (or -- horrors -- repeal) these wretched laws?