Tuesday, April 05, 2005

PATRIOT Act Violates Civil Liberties, DOJ Says

In an op-ed piece in yesterday's Washington Times, cleverly designed to persuade Americans to support extension and expansion of the USA PATRIOT Act, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) writes:

A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing tomorrow morning will commence a new round of discussions about the Patriot Act. I welcome that hearing, because the American people deserve an honest, responsible and fair discussion to ensure that we are indeed fulfilling our dual responsibilities to protect national security and civil liberties alike. Unfortunately, the debate about the Patriot Act has not always met that standard.
While Cornyn tries to lay the blame for sub-par debate on the opponents of the PATRIOT Act -- by accusing them of distributing false information about the Act's provisions and constitutionality -- the fault really lies with Congress. As Steve Lilienthal of the conservative Free Congress Foundation noted in an essay published on Independence Day, 2003:
Paul M. Weyrich, Free Congress Foundation Chairman and CEO, has emphasized that the problem with the USA PATRIOT Act is not likely to be what the Bush Administration will do with its powers, but what will be done when future administrations come to power. After all, the USA PATRIOT Act seeks to centralize more power with the Federal government, even handing its law enforcement agencies great power to crack down on political dissent. Who dissents against centralized governmental power? Conservatives, who adhere to the philosophy that recognizes the desirability of a federal government with limited power.

The House and Senate passed the USA PATRIOT Act so swiftly that many congressmen and senators had not read the bill nor had a full understanding of its measures. But the more conservatives know about the USA PATRIOT Act, the less they should like it.

One measure of the Act is called "sneak and peek" which permits searches to be conducted without informing the subject in advance that it will be taking place. This measure upends the Fourth Amendment. (emphasis added)

Now the Department of Justice has itself admitted the extent of abuse of the "sneak and peek" provision. Declan McCullagh writes in CNET News today:
Police invoked the Patriot Act when surreptitiously entering and searching a home or office without notifying the owner 108 times during a 22-month period, according to a one-page summary released by the Justice Department late Monday. On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate that police have employed secret court orders to obtain records 35 times so far.

In his Washington Times piece, Senator Cornyn cites a Democrat to claim that the PATRIOT Act has not led to abuse of civil liberties:
As Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, noted at a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing during the last Congress, "I have never had a single abuse of the PATRIOT Act reported to me. My staff emailed the ACLU and asked them for instances of actual abuses. They emailed back and said they had none."

McCullagh provides an answer to that -- from another Democrat:
"We have heard over and over again that there have been no abuses as a result of the Patriot Act," Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said during a hearing Tuesday. "But it is difficult, if not impossible, to verify that claim when some of the most controversial surveillance powers in the Patriot Act operate under a cloak of secrecy."

He goes on to note that
Increased calls for openness come as the Bush administration has taken unprecedented steps to limit public scrutiny of the executive branch. The number of classified documents has jumped since 2001, Freedom of Information Act disclosures have been curbed, and the wall of secrecy surrounding the Guantanamo Bay detention camp has drawn international condemnation. Open-government watchdog OMB Watch has said that Bush has "vastly expanded the zone of secrecy that surrounds the White House and most of the federal government."

I wrote early this year about how Democrats and Republicans in Charlottesville came together to express reservations about the PATRIOT Act -- even drawing the attention of Swedish television. A truly "honest debate" (the kind Senator Cornyn says he desires) will include the strong objections to the PATRIOT Act articulated by such conservative heavyweights as former Representatives Bob Barr (R-Georgia) and Dick Armey (R-Texas) and current members of Congress Butch Otter (R-Idaho) and Ron Paul (R-Texas).

For more information on the USA PATRIOT Act, visit the web site of the Charlottesville-based public interest law firm, the Rutherford Institute. I recommend Rutherford's blog, "Operation Eroding Freedom" for up-to-date information on the PATRIOT Act and efforts by the Bush administration and Congress to expand it.

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