Many sign up against PATRIOT Act


In February, New York City joined a growing number of cities that have passed resolutions… In February, New York City joined a growing number of cities that have passed resolutions against portions of the USA PATRIOT Act, fueling the controversy surrounding the anti-terror legislation and spurring continued debate.

“Overall, it’s clear that the PATRIOT Act went too far, and did not regard the values that define our society,” said New York City councilman Alan Gerson, whose district includes the site where the World Trade Center stood. Gerson said that much of the act is useful and needed, but that key sections subvert basic freedoms without improving security.

New York City’s Resolution 60 “calls on the government to not hold any New Yorkers without due process . . . it opposes the secret detention of persons or detention without access to a lawyer,” according to Udi Ofer, project director of the New York Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, a project of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “New York City joined over 250 other communities which have responded to the PATRIOT Act by creating civil liberties safe zones that include over 43,000,000 people,” he said.

“The Justice Department is being very misleading to the American public on this issue,” Ofer continued. “The PATRIOT Act changed privacy rights and broadly defines domestic terrorism, so that it could include things I don’t think the American public would classify as terrorism.”

But Justice Department officials maintain that the bill does not threaten civil liberties, while enhancing law enforcement’s ability to thwart terrorist attacks.

“It’s very important that the facts get out,” said Mark Corallo, director of the Office of Public Affairs at the Justice Department. “This law is the single most important tool we have to prevent future terror attacks.”

Corallo characterized the intentions of critics of the act as “well-meaning, for many, but I think some have a political agenda. Not only is it false that we’ve been misleading, we’ve had to spend considerable time and resources correcting the statements of people against the PATRIOT Act. We know and are confident in the law.”

And, in this corner…

Central to the debate over the USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act are several provisions that expand surveillance and search-and-seizure procedures. Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union have said that these expansions dilute due process by relaxing the burden of proof that law enforcement officials must show to a judge in order to obtain a search warrant.

“Our beef is not with the entire PATRIOT Act,” said Barb Feige, director of the ACLU’s Greater Pittsburgh chapter. “There’s much in this act that’s written within the realms of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and that makes us safer — except for a few provisions.”

Feige explained that one part of the act, which empowers the FBI to access personal information simply by stating that the materials had a suspected relationship to an ongoing terrorism investigation, infringes on the Fourth Amendment by reducing the requirement for probable cause.

But Corallo disagrees.

“That’s absolutely false. Probable cause has not been redefined by the PATRIOT Act. Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure are fully emphasized,” Corallo said.

The act also includes a definition of “domestic terrorism” that Feige said is so ambiguous that it could include groups like Greenpeace, or anarchist groups.

“There are perfectly legal groups practicing civil disobedience against which the PATRIOT Act could be used,” Feige continued.

Again, Corallo disagrees.

“That’s just absurd,” Corallo responded. “Peaceful political organizations engaging in political advocacy obviously do not come under this definition.”

Feige also said that, within Western Pennsylvania, the only cases where provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act were used involved drugs and child pornography.

“I’m not saying that these people shouldn’t have been prosecuted,” Feige said, “but the PATRIOT Act isn’t being used to combat terrorism.”

But Corallo said such uses weren’t necessarily negative.

“No one ever said that this act should be limited to terrorism,” he said. “It’s adjustments to regular criminal law that are able to be applied to terrorism, to make it tougher for terrorists to avoid the law.”

“Any law on the books could be abused. That’s why we have checks and balances,” Corallo continued. “That’s why we require judges to authorize the surveillance and have Congressional oversight. We have to report to Congress on everything we do twice a year.”

Feige, however, is not convinced that the proper checks and balances are in place under the act.

“We’re once again back to the government saying, ‘Trust us not to abuse the powers we’ve been given,’ and a lot of us look at history and see abuses by both Republicans and Democrats, and we’re not sure we’re ready to trust this administration, or any future administration, with these powers,” Feige said.

Feige and Corallo urged everyone to read the act and to look at the Web sites of the Justice Department and the ACLU to learn the truth about it.

Academia enters the fray

Viet Dinh, a former Justice Department official who now teaches law at Georgetown University, is one of the principal authors of the USA PATRIOT Act. He thinks that the current arguments concerning the act are too partisan to allow the facts to emerge.

“I do think this process needs a lot less heat and a lot more light,” Dinh said.

“I think that many people have a genuine but unfounded fear. The powers here were not created by the PATRIOT Act — [the act] made incremental changes to existing law. It’s unfortunate that these are sexy political issues.”

Jules Lobel and Kris W. Kobach are also law professors. Lobel teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, and Kobach teaches at the University of Missouri. Both specialize in Constitutional law, and they view the USA PATRIOT Act differently.

“There’s tremendous potential for abuse,” Lobel said. “I think that’s what the worry is with the ACLU.”

Lobel, who also specializes in human rights issues, said that some of the biggest changes to existing law involve how long officials can delay telling a person about a served warrant to obtain or inspect personal information in one’s home or elsewhere.

“[The act] doesn’t give you the right to object to a warrant, which is an important part of the evidentiary process,” Lobel said.

Kobach, in a letter written to the Lawrence, Mo., City Commission on Jan. 27, said that warrants issued under the act to investigate someone’s property and information without their knowledge must be approved within the context of a foreign intelligence or international terrorism investigation.

Kobach, who served as counsel to Attorney General John Ashcroft from 2001-2003, wrote the letter urging the Lawrence City Commission to reject a resolution similar to Resolution 60.

“In my private capacity, as I am no longer an employee of the Department of Justice . . . [there’s] a nationwide effort by a few interest groups to spread misinformation about the act,” he wrote. “This campaign has led to false claims that the act has in some way restricted the civil liberties of American citizens.”

Working at the law firm of Sprague ‘ Sprague in Philadelphia, Mark Sheppard is a white-collar criminal defense attorney who specializes in federal law. Sheppard feels that inadequate judicial oversight exists for the more controversial provisions of the act.

“Look, these are issues that are going to be decided by nine of the smartest lawyers in the land,” Sheppard said, referring to the Supreme Court. “But people need to educate themselves about these provisions, one way or another.”

The act — which was passed in 2001 — contains several provisions dealing with surveillance issues that are set to expire in December of next year unless renewed by Congress. It retains provisions that expand government investigative authority, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Web site.

Dinh said that, after the current political season ebbs, he is confident that the truth about the USA PATRIOT Act will emerge over the course of national debate.