The Patriot Act reconsidered

SAN FRANCISCO (11/20/2003) - Supporters of the Patriot Act consider it an invaluable tool in the fight against terrorism. Opponents view it as a crude cudgel that smashes electronic privacy rights and severely damages civil liberties.

Now, as elements of an expanded piece of legislation once dubbed Patriot II move through Congress, debate over the original Patriot Act has intensified, prompting legislation aimed at reining it in.

Calls for Reform

Passed overwhelmingly by Congress shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the wide-ranging Patriot Act contains provisions that tighten restrictions on foreign fund transfers, set border patrol officers' overtime pay, and reimburse victims of terrorist acts.

But the parts involving data gathering--including fewer restrictions on law enforcement, less oversight, and less public accountability for surveillance of electronic communications--have generated the most controversy.

Congress is considering at least eight bills that would alter the Patriot Act, which is set to expire in 2005. But the one drawing the most attention--and support, from both conservatives and liberals--is S. 1552, sponsored by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Cosponsored by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), the bill would overhaul provisions that have raised privacy concerns, while acknowledging that law enforcement needs strong tools to fight terrorism. S. 1552 would give courts more power to regulate government investigations and would define the type of Internet-usage records and e-mail information that law enforcement agents could obtain. It would also require greater public reporting on activities conducted under the Patriot Act.

"This legislation will give the courts more discretion in granting orders to allow search and seizure and electronic surveillance," Murkowski said of her reform bill. "It should help calm the growing fears of Americans that government agencies might overreach and needlessly violate Americans' rights to privacy without just cause."

The bill, which is in committee for further study, is unlikely to pass this session. But legislative insiders are cautiously optimistic about its chances in 2004 because it enjoys the backing of groups that span the political spectrum, from the conservative Americans for Tax Reform to the liberal American Civil Liberties Union.

Murkowski also supports the Security and Freedom Ensured Act (S. 1709), another bipartisan bill that would impose increased oversight on activities authorized by the Patriot Act. Its prime cosponsors are Senators Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois).

Patriot II, originally known as the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, was circulated as a draft, but never actually introduced. It met such stiff criticism early this year that proponents broke it into several parts that are now components of separate legislation.

For example, a provision authorizing administrative subpoenas (search orders that don't require court review) is in H.R. 3037, an antiterrorism bill sponsored by Representative Tom Feeney (R-Florida).

The Pretrial Detention and Lifetime Supervision of Terrorists Act, introduced as H.R. 3040 by Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) and as S. 1606 by Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), contains another Patriot II provision: It would let authorities detain suspected terrorists without bail, without having to demonstrate to the presiding judge that the suspects are dangerous or are likely to flee. All of these bills were referred to committee and are unlikely to reach a floor vote this year.

Terror Tool

Criticism of the Patriot Act led this summer to an unusual series of speeches given by Attorney General John Ashcroft in defense of the law. He said that it has helped crack cases like one in Buffalo, in which six men arrested in July 2002 were charged with raising money for a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. Two suspects have pleaded guilty to the charges and have agreed to assist prosecutors. Four other terrorist cells have been dismantled thanks to the law, according to proponents, resulting in criminal charges filed against 262 suspects.

Fears that the government might abuse the law are wildly exaggerated, its backers say.

"Not a single court in America has validated any of the charges of violations of constitutional rights in connection with the Patriot Act," Ashcroft declared in a speech in Memphis on September 18. "And so the charges of the hysterics are revealed for what they are: castles in the air."

Changing Attitudes

Yet a sea change has occurred in many lawmakers' attitudes about the Patriot Act and other national security measures. Earlier this year, Congress eliminated the government's Terrorism Information Awareness program--a huge data-mining project that allowed cross-references of electronic transactions--which several civil-liberties groups denounced. And this summer, the House cut all Justice Department funds that would have been available for "sneak and peek" searches--those conducted covertly, without notifying the target.

The shift in congressional opinion seems largely due to the coalition of organizations that oppose the Patriot Act--disparate interest groups that agree on little else. As a result, legislators in favor of various reform measures come from both sides of the aisle.

"When there is a letter of support for an ACLU position sent out to Republican members that's signed by (former Republican congressman) Bob Barr, I guess you could say the support is bipartisan," says Charlie Mitchell, ACLU legislative counsel.

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