For more than thirty years, our country has struggled to delineate the boundaries of domestic intelligence operations. Americans tend to regard those government components exercising national security powers within the borders of the United States (whether under clear authority or not) with an inherent suspicion bolstered by historical experience. We tolerate the existence of such components but insist that they be highly regulated, particularly with respect to any activities that impinge upon civil society. Historical circumstances influence, but never erase, this regulatory imperative. Despite this imperative, components may occasionally escape regulation – at least for a time – because they are unknown, their missions remain mysterious or only partially understood, or because (intentionally or not) a convincing illusion of sufficient regulation is presented to the examining eye.
The USA PATRIOT Act has sparked intense public debate, with proponents claiming that the Act is a necessarily hard-minded response to a national crisis, while opponents see unwarranted, even opportunistic, expansion of state power. Perhaps no provision of the Act has generated more controversy than §215, which authorizes the FBI to seek a court order compelling the production of “any tangible things” relevant to certain counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations. Like many other provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, §215 will expire on December 31, 2005, unless reauthorized by Congress. The controversy, therefore, is likely to intensify over the coming months.