L/R Coalition Resists Call to Renew Patriot Act
From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release February 3, 2004
Left-Right Coalition Resists President Bush's Call to Renew USA Patriot Act
Interview with Charlie Mitchell, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, conducted by Scott Harris
Listen in RealAudio: http://www.btlonline.org/mitchell020604.ram
In his State of the Union address delivered to the nation on Jan. 20, President Bush called on Congress to renew key provisions of the USA Patriot Act, set to expire next year. Bush stated that the Patriot Act provided the tools needed by law enforcement to protect Americans from future terrorist attacks.
But more than two years after Sept. 11 and quick congressional passage of the Patriot Act, a grassroots coalition of civil liberties advocates from across the political spectrum have been increasingly critical of the legislation that they assert weakens protections embodied in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Among the provisions of the act that most concern activists is Section 215, which allows the FBI to collect evidence and private records without judicial review.
Around the country more than 230 local governments -- and three state legislatures -- have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act. Between the Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Charlie Mitchell, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, who explains why the ACLU and other groups oppose the president's call to make the USA Patriot Act a permanent part of American law.
Charlie Mitchell: Out of many dozens of sections that make up the Patriot Act, there are only about 12 that are subject to the sunset which would be Dec. 31st of 2005. And the sunset doesn't mean they'd go away, it just means that Congress has to review them and see if they’ve been used appropriately and if they're effective.
Our position is, of course, that's the wrong way to go. We've actually argued for the amendment of some of these measures and the outright repeal of some of them. In fact, we want more of the Patriot Act subject to sunset so it gets a full thorough Congressional review.
Frankly at the ACLU we were a little bit shocked that (President Bush) would make this call in his State of the Union (address), because it just sort of runs contrary to what we've seen in the sentiment, both in public, where we've had over 240 communities pass resolutions expressing their being opposed to the Patriot Act, and also the atmosphere we've seen on (Capitol) Hill where many, many Republicans are even starting to sign up on bills such as the Safe Act that address these provisions.
Between The Lines: Maybe you could summarize some of the provisions that you find the most objectionable and that you would like to see expire?
Charlie Mitchell: Sure. One of the provisions that has got a lot of attention around the country is Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which has gotten its most attention in the way it's been applied -- or could be applied to libraries.
What that is, it's taking a tool that was available in terrorism investigations and was available in intelligence investigations, and really allowing the government to use that tool -- which doesn't have the normal safeguards that would apply to criminal procedures -- and use it on ordinary Americans in all types of situations, on all businesses, in all libraries, any sort of establishment to get their records under a very low standard. That's one we'd like to see addressed. We've actually not proposed repealing it, we proposed limiting it to its application the way it was designed to be used on agents of foreign powers and terrorists.
Another provision that is not subject to sunset, and we would like to see again revised, not repealed, is the "sneak and peek" searches, that's Section 213 of the Patriot Act that allows the government to come into your home, search your home, even take things from your home and not tell you until they decide the time is right. We just wanted to amend that to make sure that there are judges involved in the process and eventually the government has to tell you they were there.
Between The Lines: Congress, I believe, has taken action already on the "sneak and peek" provisions. Do you want to fill us in a little bit about what Congress's role here could be in changing this thing?
Charlie Mitchell: There's in fact a bill in the Senate and in the House both named the "Safe Act." And this bill on the Senate side is sponsored by Sen. Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho, with four Republican Senate co-sponsors and hopefully more soon. And on the House side as well, there are over seven Republican co-sponsors, I believe, on the House version of "Safe." The chair of the House Judiciary Committee, a Republican from Wisconsin, Rep. Sensenbrenner, when asked about repealing the sunsets without having the time to review them and following the original schedule said, "over his dead body." So we do have some hope that on the Hill that Congress will take its oversight responsibility very seriously.
Between The Lines: One of the responses from Attorney General John Ashcroft and others in the Bush administration -- responding to criticism about some of these provisions in the Patriot Act -- is they say critics really can't point to any place, any specific time or case in which the Patriot Act has been abusive of people's rights. Is that an accurate statement in your view?
Charlie Mitchell: That is not an accurate statement from the position of the ACLU. There are specific abuses and the ACLU is preparing to release a report on that.
Sometimes it's over-aggressive prosecution. For example, there was a lovesick 20-year- old girl on a cruise ship off of California who put a threatening note on boat because she wanted to go home and see her boyfriend. Now obviously that is wrong and obviously she should be punished. But the government went ahead and charged her with the federal crime of terrorism and she's serving two years in federal prison.
Another thing that concerns us is that when this law was passed, many members of Congress accepted some of the lessening in civil liberty protections because they thought it would only be used on terrorists. And in fact the Department of Justice billed this as being a bill that would only address terrorism; it would never be applied to ordinary Americans.
Well, the Department of Justice is now bragging about their successes in normal criminal investigations. They've used the Patriot Act to investigate a political corruption case in Las Vegas. So that's a concern that this law is now being used on ordinary Americans in cases that have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism.
Between The Lines: What do you suggest concerned citizens do at this moment that could be effective in preserving our Bill of Rights, our civil liberties in the face of the continuing threats of terrorism, and the Bush administration's reactions to those threats embodied in particular provisions of the Patriot Act that you see as detrimental to those rights?
Charlie Mitchell: Well, the first thing that I would recommend is, continue to organize at a community level and pass these community resolutions. It's having an amazing effect on the dialogue on the Hill, and it's also really amazing to see communities get together and discuss civil liberties, which is a very important feature in our democracy.
I think a second thing is that this is an election year. Talk to your members (of Congress,) ask the candidates how they stand on protecting your civil liberties. And in terms of your current Representatives, contact them and tell them to co-sponsor the Safe Act. On the House side, it's HR-3352 sponsored by Rep. Otter form Idaho -- and on the Senate side, it is S-1709 sponsored by Senator Craig from Idaho.
Contact the ACLU by calling (212) 549-2500 or visit their Web site at: http://www.aclu.org
Related links on our website at http://www.btlonline.org/btl020604.html#1hed:
Center for Constitutional Rights at http://www.ccr-ny.org
Bill of Rights Defense Committee at http://www.bordc.org
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Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on over 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines ( http://www.btlonline.org), for the week ending Feb. 6, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo
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