A Register-Guard Editorial: Revise Patriot Act -- Anti-terrorism powers should be scaled back

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As Senate and House Judiciary committee hearings on the USA Patriot Act began this week, many newspapers around the country voiced support for the sunsetting of provisions threatening Americans' First Amendment rights, including Section 215, which relates to the privacy of bookstore and library records. The following editorial appeared in Eugene, Oregon's Register-Guard on Monday, March 28.

Revise Patriot Act -- Anti-terrorism powers should be scaled back

Americans can expect the Bush administration's drumbeat of fear to intensify in coming weeks as Congress takes up the constitutionally critical matter of renewing the USA Patriot Act.

President Bush has called for complete reauthorization of the voluminous and complex law, which Congress approved in the fear-filled weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But lawmakers should remember that the act was not engraved on stone tablets and carried down from the mountaintop. Thorough, systematic review and revision are essential to preserve civil liberties and core American values.

When it passed in October 2001, moderates and civil libertarians in Congress prudently insisted that many of the government's new anti-terrorism powers be made temporary. More than a dozen of those provisions will expire or "sunset" at the end of this year unless they're renewed by Congress.

Contrary to claims by some critics, the entire act does not need to be repealed or allowed to expire. Some of the new counter-terrorism tools merely responded to technological changes, such as cell phones and e-mail. These adjustments were overdue and, for the most part, are working well. An example is the provision allowing court-ordered wiretaps to follow calls from mobile phones rather than being limited to stationary phones.

But several provisions were sunsetted for good reason and should be excised. They include a portion of the bill that allows prosecutors to obtain data on American citizens from libraries, medical offices, businesses, and other entities without evidence that the targeted citizens are connected to terrorism. Business owners and librarians can be jailed if they refuse to comply or if they notify the targets.

Another is the "sneak and peek" provision that allows federal agents to conduct secret searches of people's homes and businesses without telling them that intrusions have occurred. Then there is the dangerously broad definition of who can be deemed terrorists, which has resulted in what civil libertarians call "mission creep." The Justice Department itself has told Congress that the act's provisions on government surveillance have been used with regularity in cases unrelated to terrorism, including white-collar crime and drug trafficking.

The Bush administration boasts that the sweeping anti-terrorism powers that the law gives to federal law enforcement agencies have enabled the government to move with far greater speed and flexibility, and to disrupt terrorist operations before they occur.

Sounds impressive. But time and again, Americans have seen grandiose investigations turn out to be botched, overblown cases in which suspects had little or no relevance to terrorism or national security.

Oregonians remember the case of Brandon Mayfield, the Portland lawyer wrongly imprisoned for two weeks after the FBI accused him of having a role in the Madrid railroad bombings. Mayfield is suing to have portions of the Patriot Act overturned, charging that federal agents used its "sneak and peek" provisions to intrude on his home, tap his phone, and seize his belongings.

The Justice Department argues that there have been no documented violations of civil rights stemming from the act. They're right, but the reason is not the government's scrupulous behavior. It's that justice officials have consistently stonewalled congressional requests for complete information on how the act has been applied. It's impossible to document abuses when the government conceals the documents.

With final votes still months away, the debate over renewal of the Patriot Act promises to be intense. Americans can expect to see Bush and new Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wrap themselves in the flag and argue that America's security depends on nothing less than renewal of the Patriot Act in toto.

In fact, the opposite is true: America's future as a free and democratic nation depends on careful review and revision of the extraordinary powers provided by the Patriot Act. Lawmakers should remember in the rhetoric-filled months to come that there are countless ways to fight terrorism and improve homeland security without sacrificing fundamental American liberties.

Reprinted with permission of the Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon. Online at www.registerguard.com.