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|Fri, 04-11-2003 - 4:03pm|
Critics rip bid to make Patriot Act permanent
Friday, April 11, 2003
By CHARLES POPE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON -- With the war on terrorism lagging behind the war in Iraq, Republicans in Congress and the White House are pushing legislation that would give federal authorities sweeping new powers to monitor, track, profile, and even revoke citizenship of U.S. citizens.
The effort is being directed along two controversial fronts, involving current law as well as new proposals. Both have generated fierce resistance on Capitol Hill and from civil liberties groups.
On one track, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, with the backing of the White House, wants to make permanent the provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the sprawling 2001 law hastily passed only weeks after the Sept. 11 attack.
The law greatly expanded the government's ability to search records and monitor people and their property.
It gave the government new authority to conduct telephone and Internet surveillance with minimal judicial oversight and created a broad new definition of "domestic terrorism" that could lead to the investigation and prosecution of people engaged in acts of political protest.
It also gave federal agents the power to survey all book and computer records at libraries, and permitted non-citizens to be jailed without formal charges for up to six months.
Because of concerns that the law might go too far and harbor unintended consequences, Congress stipulated that the Patriot Act dissolve in 2005.
But Hatch, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said this week that he wants to make the law permanent.
At the same time, the Bush administration is drafting new legislation, dubbed Patriot II, that would provide federal agents even more authority to issue wiretaps, conduct "data mining" and monitor people presumed or known to have terrorist connections.
Although the bill is still being drafted, those with knowledge of it say it would, among other things, allow federal authorities to make secret arrests and to "infiltrate and monitor" worship services.
Critics say the proposals are troubling.
"We know the government has used some of these laws incorrectly, and we know that this has been the least cooperative Justice Department in anyone's memory," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in response to Hatch's plan to strip the "sunset provision" from the Patriot Act.
"History shows that a government that doesn't want oversight often is a government that has something to hide."
The Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter to the state's two senators Wednesday urging them to oppose Hatch.
Other groups also are mobilizing to fight the proposal.
"After a mere 18 months since the enactment of the legislation, it is simply too soon to measure the impact of these provisions and move to make them permanent," said the letter to Sens. Dick Durbin and Peter Fitzgerald.
Hatch declined to comment, but Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said the law has been crucial in the fight against terrorism. "It has been an invaluable tool in our efforts to prevent terrorist activity," Corallo said.
"The Patriot Act gives us the tools we need to better protect the American public while also protecting civil liberties."
Corallo declined to comment on Hatch's proposal, but a Justice Department official who asked to remain nameless said Hatch has the support of the department. Republican aides believe Hatch's amendment could pass the Senate. It could run into trouble in the House, however, where Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., has stressed the importance of congressional oversight. Sensenbrenner was instrumental in inserting the sunset provisions in the Patriot Act.
Opposition also is coming from a more surprising direction -- mainstream conservative organizations that usually count Attorney General John Ashcroft among their heroes.
"Already, government investigative powers have been dramatically expanded," said former Rep. Bob Barr, a well-known conservative who once was a close ally of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "Already, intelligence is working under the flawed premise that to get the bad guys you need to spy unmercifully on the good guys."
Barr appeared at a forum yesterday with three other influential conservatives, who have banded together with, improbably, the American Civil Liberties Union to try to defeat the initiatives.
"We hope that the White House will take notice from the shared concern expressed today that Americans of all political stripes want leaders who strive to make us all both safe and free," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office. She joined Barr and David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; and Lori Waters, executive director of the Eagle Forum.
Murphy said the draft bill would, if passed in its current form, represent a big shift away from America's long-standing commitment to the right 'to be left alone,' " she said.
Among other powers, Murphy said the bill would "give the government the unprecedented authority to revoke Americans' citizenship and open the door to government suppression of lawful protest activities."
Waters said passage of the two measures would edge the country closer to a philosophy "where there are two types of people: the caught and the uncaught. .... We see a growing effort of the government to tag and track everything we do," she said. "We don't think these are the most effective way of preventing terrorists from getting on planes and blowing them up."
A Justice Department official who didn't want his name used said the initial criticisms would be moot because many of the objectionable provisions will not be included in the final bill. Some of the ideas, the official said, were proposed only to get discussions started within the department and were never intended for inclusion. He wouldn't say which provisions fit in that category.
Civil libertarians and conservatives alike are still unnerved by an earlier proposal by the Justice Department called Operation TIPS that would encourage citizens to watch and report strange behavior. That proposal died last year in Congress.
Another worrisome idea, critics say, is a plan by the government to develop a system to "profile" all airline passengers to gauge their risk. Critics also worry that federal officials might try again to win approval for a national ID card. Congress has rejected that idea.
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