Congress Mulls Scaling Back of USA Patriot Act
Supporters see ‘uphill battle’getting Senators on board movement to restore rights
By Greg Szymanski
A Senate bill to limit the draconian powers of the Patriot Act is expected to be introduced this current congressional session, but supporters say it will be “an uphill battle” since it doesn’t have the support of Senate Judiciary
Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
A spokesman from Hatch’s office declined comment, saying the senator didn’t lend his support last session and wasn’t aware of the present status of the legislation.
The bill has garnered little support and has been languishing in the Senate since being introduced last October by senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho). It is designed to impose only minor restrictions on the antiterrorism law without hampering efforts by law enforcement to investigate terrorists.
A spokesman for Durbin said the bill would most likely be introduced this term, depending on support gathered. The bill has a total of 19 co-sponsors, including Republican senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania.
“I believe it is possible to combat terrorism and preserve our individual freedoms at the same time,” says Durbin. “The Patriot Act crossed the line on several key areas of civil liberties and this legislation restores the necessary checks and balances to the system.”
However, critics claim the measure, entitled the Security and Freedom Ensured Act (SAFE), only scratches the surface in reforming the controversial Patriot Act.
Ever since the Patriot Act was hurriedly passed through Congress 45 days after 9-11 with little debate, critics have cited numerous civil rights violations, including unwarranted investigations of American citizens in matters unrelated to terrorism.
One of the most troubling portions of the act is Section 215, which permits law enforcement to conduct unlawful searches and seizures without a warrant and without probable cause. This section allows the government
to obtain records on clients and customers from libraries, bookstores, doctors, universities, Internet service providers and other public entities and private sector businesses.
What is most troubling about Section 215 is that it imposes a gag order prohibiting an organization forced to turn over records from disclosing the search to their clients, customers or any third party.
The result is vastly expanded government powers to rifle through an individual’s finances, medical histories, Internet usage, library usage, school records, travel patterns and through records of everything imaginable concerning the target of the investigation.
Critics claim the Patriot Act has “torn the Constitution to pieces” and its powers totally obliterate freedom of speech, protection against unlawful search and seizure, right to counsel and right to a speedy trial..
To combat civil rights abuses, three states and over 180 cities and counties nationwide thus far have passed resolutions expressing concern or modifying the act. The state legislatures of Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont have passed resolutions opposing provisions of the Patriot Act.
The American Library Association has also taken steps to warn patrons and protect them against unwarranted government surveillance of library records and usage, allowed without a warrant under the Patriot Act on mere suspicion, not probable cause.
Unfortunately, the Department of Justice (DOJ) first under John Ashcroft and now under Alberto Gonzales has waged a media campaign to mislead the American people, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
In a recent Chicago Tribune article, spokesman Mark Corallo of the DOJ said:
“We don’t have any interest in looking at the book preferences of Americans. We don’t care, and it would be an incredible waste of time.”
In The Washington Post, he added: “We’re not going after the average American. We’re only going after the bad guys. We respect the right of privacy. If you’re not a terrorist or spy, you have nothing to worry about.”
However, the ACLU warns that a constitutional republic is based on “checks and balances,” not blind faith in the good intentions of government officials.
In one of the ACLU’s recent responses to the government propaganda campaign waged in newspapers across the country, it said:
“With all due respect to the Justice Department, it is not enough for the government to assure us that they go to great lengths to protect our privacy, don’t have interest in spying on innocent people and are not going after
“The wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the historical record of abuses by the FBI and common sense all point to the same conclusion: we can’t rely on the FBI or any other federal law enforcement agency to police itself.
“It’s time for the FBI and the Justice Department to quit misleading the American people. It’s time to end the abuses caused by the Patriot Act and again stand by the principles established in the Constitution.”