This Fourth of July weekend, Americans will descend on their local parks and fire up the barbecues for a celebration of independence and liberty packed with fireworks and patriotic zeal.
The Patriot Act, just four years old, has asked Americans to relinquish some of those hard-earned liberties in exchange for greater security.
Passed by Congress in the emotional aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the controversial bill expanded the federal government’s investigative and intelligence-gathering powers to fight terrorism.
Among other things, it allows secret searches of private property, defines terrorism broadly, expands the government’s ability to watch people, and opens Internet use and personal reading habits to federal scrutiny.
Now, with portions of the bill due to “sunset” or expire, Congress has begun debating its reauthorization — and critics are targeting provisions they say are too easily abused.
Civil liberties organizations are calling on Congress to let the temporary provisions expire, and to re-evaluate some permanent aspects of the law.
One “sunsetting” provision allows the government to gain access to medical, library and school records without suspicion of criminal activity, according to the ACLU.
Another issue high on critics’ lists are secret “sneak and peak” warrants, which replace the old “knock and announce” method for executing search warrants.
The federal government can now search homes and businesses without notifying the subject until months after the fact.
Secrecy is one of the foundations of the act. According to People for the American Way, the bill was drafted in secret, and made it to a Senate vote without the usual stops in committees for debate on its effects and issues.
The Associated Press reports that secrecy surrounding the use of the Patriot Act is stirring doubts in Congress, and hurting the Bush Administration’s push for renewal.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations is asking Congress to conduct Patriot Act reauthorization meetings in public. As recently as this June such meetings have been held behind closed doors.
One permanent provision raises First Amendment concerns by broadly defining domestic terrorism to include acts that are “dangerous to human life” and which are intended to influence government policy, according to the ACLU.
The group fears that protests and displays of civil disobedience will be targeted.
The American Library Association has come out in strong opposition to the Patriot Act’s provision giving the FBI access to library records and book store receipts, so as to monitor people’s reading habits.
The law also puts a gag order on recipients of the request, preventing librarians and booksellers from telling anyone they were asked for records.
According to the New York Times, a study by the ALA found that there have been at least 200 requests for library records since the Patriot Act passed.
The study included all law enforcement requests, not just by the Patriot Act.
Some libraries in the study described a “chilling effect” because they had changed the types of books they bought.
On June 15, the House of Representatives voted to get rid of the library provision, but President Bush has threatened to veto this revision if it makes it through the Senate.
The Associated Press reported that supporters of the library provision have said that limiting government’s ability to search records amounts to making libraries safe for terrorists.
In at least one Florida county such concerns are a “nonproblem,” because such records are destroyed after books are returned.
Libraries in Polk County Florida don’t keep track of people’s book-borrowing habits because, they say, it is an unnecessary expense, according to the Ledger, a local newspaper there.
Civil liberties groups and the political left are not alone in opposing aspects of the law.
Founded by Congressman Bob Barr (R-Ga.), the new organization Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances is opposed to the Patriot Act’s broad powers.
“True conservatives understand the Constitution and know when it’s being threatened,” Rep. Barr said, according to the Washington Times.
Representative Ron Paul, (R-Texas) has also come out in opposition.
In his weekly opinion column, Texas Straight Talk, Paul said many of the measures in the Patriot Act apply to criminal activity, not terrorist offenses.
Paul, who espouses a small-government philosophy, said he is against the bill’s expansion of the federal government.
Some law enforcement officials say the Patriot Act simply extends the tools to terrorism investigations that are already available in criminal investigations.
In the Seattle Times, John McKay, U.S. attorney for the western district of Washington state, said searching library records for criminal investigations is nothing new.
He cited the 1996 Unabomber case and the murder of Gianni Versace in 1997 as examples where subpoenaed library records helped crack cases.
McKay also said that “sneak and peak” searches have been around for a while and are only done when a federal judge authorizes them.
Investigators used the tactic with crime-boss John Gotti, fearing destruction of evidence or reciprocal violence if word about the search got out.
The ACLU claims that the review process used by federal judges to approve “sneak and peak” probes has become a rubber stamp.
In an editorial published in the York Dispatch (Pennsylvania), Kevin Madden, press secretary in the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs argued that the sunsetting provisions are necessary tools for the war on terrorism.
He adds that the Supreme Court has reviewed delayed searches and ruled they were constitutional.
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“The sun also sets: Understanding the Patriot Act ‘sunsets'”
American Civil Liberties Union
“USA Patriot Act: What are the issues”
People for the American Way
“CAIR calls for changes in Patriot Act”
Official Wire NewsDesk, June 10, 2005
“Secrecy hurting push for Patriot Act renewal, lawmakers say”
Associated Press, April 4, 2005
“Library study tracks how often Patriot Act is used”
New York Times, June 27, 2005
“House votes to limit Patriot Act rules on library records”
Associated Press, June 16, 2005
“Reconsidering the Patriot Act”
Texas Straight Talk, May 2, 2005
“Patriot Act’s tools no different that those used to fight crime”
Seattle Times, June 13, 2005
“In defense of the Patriot Act”
York Dispatch Online (PA), June 28, 2005
The Ledger (Florida), June 28, 2005
“Conservatives, liberals align against Patriot Act”
Washington Times, June 14, 2005