High stakes in Patriot Act game

In the two-and-a-half years since its passage, there has been a great deal of debate surrounding the USA Patriot Act. Now a recent court ruling, determining that part of the act is unconstitutional, and a Senate bill that would rescind many of the governmental powers created by the act, have increased the controversy over the act.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins ruled that the part of the anti-terrorism act, passed just 45 days after September 11, 2001, that bans providing “expert advice or assistance” to groups designated as terrorist organizations was too vague, citing that the act does not distinguish between giving advice on violent acts and advising groups to use peaceful means to achieve their goals.

“The USA Patriot Act places no limitation on the type of expert advice and assistance which is prohibited and instead bans the provision of all expert advice and assistance regardless of its nature,” the judge said.

The decision marks the first time since the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001 that a section of the act has been declared unconstitutional by a U.S. judge.

The U.S. Department of Justice promptly issued a statement saying that the department is assessing the court’s decision and defended the section of the act struck down by the decision.

“The provision at issue in today’s decision was a modest amendment to a pre-existing antiterrorism law that was designed to deal with real threats caused by support of terrorist groups,” spokesman Mark Carallo said.

The court ruling is not the only government action that could alter the Patriot Act, a bill currently being reviewed by committees in congress could also roll back many of the investigative powers granted to the government by the act.

Senate Bill S. 1709, called the Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act of 2003, sponsored by Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, and co-sponsored by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, among others, would place limitations on many surveillance methods that were condoned by the Patriot Act. The act would also limit the government’s ability to access civilian library records, one of the most controversial powers granted by the Patriot Act.

Members of the Bush administration are taking a firm stand against the SAFE Act, insisting that all sections of the Patriot Act are necessary to insure domestic security.

On January 28, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft sent a letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary,

“If enacted, the SAFE Act would roll back many of the most important and useful anti-terrorism authorities enacted by the USA Patriot Act,” Ashcroft says in the letter, “in fact, the SAFE Act would make it even more difficult to mount an effective anti-terror campaign than it was before the Patriot Act was passed.”

In the letter’s conclusion, Ashcroft warns Hatch that, “If S.1709 is presented in its current form to the President, the President’s senior advisers will recommend that it be vetoed.”

Senator Craig, responded to Ashcroft’s threat in a statement insisting that the SAFE Act is not as drastic as Ashcroft claims.

“Rather than repeal the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, the SAFE Act clarifies and amends them in a minor way to restore the judicial oversight that is requisite to healthy law enforcement. By doing so, the SAFE Act ensures that the liberties of law-abiding individuals are protected in our nation’s fight against terrorism, without impeding that fight,” Craig said.

Apart from the court ruling and Senate bill, the Patriot Act’s future remains a major issue on the Bush administration’s agenda because many provisions from the original Patriot Act are set to expire in 2005 as part of a “sunset clause” that was added before the act was passed.

Congress could renew the parts of the act that will sunset by another vote, and President Bush has already begun to push for the continuation of the act.

“Key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year. The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule,” President Bush said in his state of the union address on January 20. “Our law enforcement needs this vital legislation to protect our citizens. You need to renew the Patriot Act.”

Regardless of the Patriot Act’s fate, there may be more legislation on the horizon that would dramatically change government’s tools to deter those considered to be a threat to national security, such as the “Patriot II” act, originally officially known as the Domestic Security Enhancement Act (DSE Act).

The DSE Act proposed many dramatic changes to the way that crime and terrorism are currently combated in the U.S., including establishing a national database of citizen DNA information that could be collected without a court order, allowing the government to strip Americans of their citizenship if they are found contributing in any way to an organization deemed to be “terrorist,” and allowing permanent legal residents to be deported without a criminal charge being filed if the attorney general considers them to be a threat to national security

The DSE Act, however, was never officially introduced to congress. In fact, the existence of the act was denied by the Justice Department to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, but a Justice Department internal memo that contained a copy of the act was then leaked to the public, placing it in the political spotlight.

Fearing that the DSE Act would not pass on its own, proponents of the act are now attempting to pass the provisions included in the act by dividing them into individual sections and attaching them to other bills. The first instance of this occurred on December 13-the day that Saddam Hussein was captured-when President Bush signed the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004, which included a section giving the FBI authority to access to more types of financial records without a warrant, a provision originally from the Patriot II proposal.

The Intelligence Authorization Act met little public protest, but many civil liberties groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), voiced concern that the act is only the beginning of an attempt by the Bush Administration to further erode civil liberties.

“The legislative proposals that embody provisions of Patriot Act II – both individually and taken as a whole – represent Administration defiance of the growing opposition to provisions of the Patriot Act and other government actions since September 11, 2001 that go beyond what is necessary to fight terrorism and infringe on basic civil liberties,” a statement released by the ACLU said.

The USA Patriot Act, which is actually an acronym for the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, was approved by an overwhelming majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in October of 2001, just weeks after the tragedies of September 11. Congress was given little time to review the act, which is over 300 pages long in its entirety, before it was passed, however, and the act was not subject to the usual committee scrutiny before it was voted on. President Bush signed the act into law on October 25, 2001.