by Chip Pitts, Board President, Bill of Rights Defense Committee (www.bordc.org
Could those distant rumblings really represent a growing chorus of the people and their representatives reclaiming their freedoms?
Maybe. There’s at least some unexpected drama surrounding the Patriot Act’s renewal. Recall that in December, a bipartisan group of senators rejected a Conference Report that favored the less-liberty sensitive House approach for reauthorizing 16 “sunsetting” Patriot Act provisions. Preferring the somewhat more liberty-sensitive, unanimous Senate version, they joined Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) in a filibuster that temporarily delayed the bill becoming law until February 3rd. The true patriots joining Feingold included Senators Larry Craig (R–ID), Dick Durbin (D–IL), John Sununu (R–NH), Barak Obama (D–IL), Lisa Murkowski (R- AK), John Kerry (D-MA), Chuck Hagel (R-NV), and Ken Salazar (D-CO).
While the 16 ‘most controversial’ provisions slated to sunset have received attention, many other dubious provisions haven’t been debated at all. However, President Bush and his supporters want to keep all these provisions and remove all but a couple of the sunsets – even though the presence of sunsets actually discouraged abuse and prompted the little Congressional oversight that occurred.
These partisans would allow only minor improvements offering illusory protections, such as a bit more reporting on the number of times provisions have been used, and Justice Department Inspector General audits. They’d require that section 215’s secret searches and seizures be “relevant” to an “investigation,” but this would still allow fishing expeditions on a standard failing to meet the traditionally required probable cause that the target is factually linked to terrorism or espionage. The FBI director (or a deputy) would approve searches for the most sensitive library, medical, educational, gun, and tax records, but these are merely higher ups in the same agency demanding the records. And some limited rights to challenge search orders and gag orders would be granted – but would usually fail under strong presumptions favoring the government.
Per U.S. News and World Report, the feds would still have a “virtually free hand to secretly rummage through the records and homes of ordinary Americans, even those with no ties to suspected terrorists or spies.” National security letters of the sort already issued to tens of thousands of American businesses, schools, libraries, and medical offices would continue without prior court authorization, each potentially reaching the records of many more people. This “anti-terrorist” law would still be used overwhelmingly in non-terrorist criminal cases, all under the guise of being “nothing new” – and simultaneously indispensable.
Far from being a partisan issue, this deceptive executive power-grab concerns – or should concern – all Americans. Perhaps that’s why so many diverse sources have insisted that individualized, fact-based suspicion and meaningful judicial review be reinserted into the law.
Such calls have come from leading legislators from both parties, top business organizations ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the National Association of Manufacturers, and not only progressive but also conservative organizations like Bob Barr’s Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances. “Just trust us” doesn’t fly after revelations that the President used the National Security Agency to illegally spy on Americans without warrants and used the Pentagon as well as the FBI to spy on nonviolent activists ranging from the ACLU and Greenpeace to the Quakers. It doesn't work when the administration has repeatedly ignored laws including even the Patriot Act itself to illegally roundup thousands of Muslims and Arabs after 9/11, to secretly detain people around the world, to torture and treat them cruelly, and even to engage in extrajudicial killings of the sort recently seen in Pakistan.
Disturbingly reminiscent of Nixon’s “enemies list” and the discredited COINTELPRO activity, these counterproductive and un-American activities harm security in many ways. Confusing innocent Americans or Muslims with al Qaeda wastes limited resources. As FBI officials have complained, it adds to the quantity of useless data to be sifted through. And spying on activists deters the scrutiny and criticism needed to correct government overreaching and mistakes. Less noticed than the warrantless surveillance has been the administration's program to infiltrate mosques, and station "radiation detectors" outside of mosques. This sort of targeting of peaceful religious adherents and political groups is deeply troubling.
Yet the President and his supporters have included in the new version of the Patriot Act provisions burdening free speech by criminalizing people who enter into areas “cordoned off” or “restricted” by the Secret Service for “events of national significance” – like the President’s stage-managed speeches to carefully sanitized audiences.
Take the opportunity to join the chorus: call and write your Senators and Congressmen, and get your friends, neighbors, and colleagues to do the same. Tell your representatives that you reject the Conference Report and insist at a minimum on the full protections in the Senate version, as well as additional sunsets. Together, the people and the people’s representatives can recapture our vanishing freedoms.