Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Unusual Right-Left Coalition Opposes Patriot Act

Encouraging news today from the San Francisco Chronicle, via Common Dreams.

And speaking of the Patriot Act, be sure to pay a visit to that hard-working grassroots organization, The Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
Left and Right Unite to Challenge Patriot Act Provisions by Edward Epstein

An unusual left-right coalition opened a campaign Tuesday to sharply curtail controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act, showing that Congress and President Bush face a pointed debate over renewing the law enacted just 45 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

It was a Washington rarity to see the American Civil Liberties Union line up with conservative lions like David Keefe of the American Conservative Union and former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga. But they were among those at a Washington press conference held to assail such Patriot Act provisions as those allowing law enforcement agents to look at library users' records or to conduct unannounced "sneak-and-peek'' searches on homes or private offices.

"It is not, and never should be necessary, to surrender our rights under the Bill of Rights to fight the war on terrorism,'' said Barr, who as a House member voted for the Patriot Act, which passed overwhelmingly in the House and provoked only one dissenting Senate vote.

Barr, leader of the new group dubbed Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, concedes that the group faces a difficult fight in making changes to the 4-year-old law. The law's supporters, many of whom point out that the United States hasn't been hit by another terrorist attack since Sept. 11, say it has proven effective and that many of the complaints offered by civil libertarians have nothing to do with the act's provisions.

Key provisions of the bill are scheduled to expire Dec. 31, so Congress must deal with the issue this year. The Senate and House Judiciary Committees plan Patriot Act hearings starting later in the spring.

Instead of seeking wholesale changes, the coalition is focusing on three of the law's most-controversial provisions. And rather than push for their repeal, the group wants the wording clarified to establish that the intention is to fight terrorists -- not let law enforcement agencies engage in fishing expeditions or silence dissent.

The group wants the section giving access to library, medical and firearm- ownership records modified to require that law enforcement officials present evidence to a federal judge supporting a link with suspected terrorism before warrants are served.

The group wants similar limits on the provision allowing secret searches of homes, businesses and personal property. And group members want the language of the section that allows surveillance of protests rewritten to require a definite connection with suspected terrorism.

"These provisions sweep far too broadly. Whenever people ram through legislation with broad and vague authority, it eventually will be abused,'' Barr said.

"If the Constitution stands for anything, it's that government does not have the power to peer into our private lives without evidence of wrongdoing, '' said Laura Murphy, of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.

Grover Norquist, the conservative activist who heads Americans for Tax Reform, noted the unlikely coalition of conservatives and the ACLU. "For too long, conservatives assumed it was someone else's job'' to protect civil liberties, Norquist said.

So far, almost 400 local and state governments have passed resolutions opposing the act, or some of its provisions, the ACLU says.

President Bush campaigned last year in favor of renewing the Patriot Act, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has indicated he doesn't favor any changes except, perhaps, to increase the government's powers in a few instances.

"Debate about government exercise of powers that might infringe upon privacy or civil liberties, I think that's an appropriate debate,'' he told a recent meeting of the National Association of Counties. "But it's got to be a real debate, one based on facts. And I've yet to hear a strong argument as to why the Patriot Act should not be reauthorized.''

At a recent House hearing, FBI Director Robert Mueller praised the Patriot Act and said he'd like to see it expanded to include administrative subpoena power in terrorism cases, something the FBI has in organized crime and health- care fraud investigations. The subpoenas, which require recipients to disclose information, are signed by an FBI agent without prior judicial or grand jury review.

Mueller said the Patriot Act is a key part of the FBI's new post-Sept. 11 approach. "We have changed the way we address terrorism since Sept. 11 to ensure that we have exploited every possibility to gather intelligence about the motivations, the capabilities of these individuals or groups in our communities before we go ahead and make the arrest,'' he told a House panel.

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