The Calm After the Patriot Act Storm
the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the Patriot Act,
reviving the long-running debate over the anti-terrorism law enacted
in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. A statement issued by the Justice
Department said that "most of the voluminous Patriot Act is actually
unobjectionable from a civil liberties point of view" and that
"the law makes important changes that give law enforcement agents
the tools they need to protect against terrorist attacks."
mistake. That statement didn't come from the administration. It
came from the American Civil Liberties Union.
than three years, critics have portrayed the Patriot Act as a
ferocious assault on individual liberty and personal privacy.
But with several provisions of the law set to expire at the end
of 2005, it turns out that even the strongest critics don't want
to change all that much. Maybe now it will be possible for Americans
to consider the actual law itself and not the grotesque caricature
it has become.
to think of a law with a worse reputation than this one. No fewer
than 377 communities have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot
Act, in addition to five states. Some have even urged public libraries
and bookstores to destroy records that might be requested by the
government under one controversial provision. Howard Dean called
continues to inspire overheated rhetoric from opponents on both
the left and the right. A group called Patriots to Restore Checks
and Balances, headed by former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., denounced
it recently, saying, "Our message is universal: Individual liberties
are not negotiable, even in the face of terrorism."
blame lobby groups for striking melodramatic poses to get attention.
And there is clearly a market for such sentiments, even if they
are not tethered to reality. But the danger posed by this law
has always been largely mythical.
A lot of
the outrage against the Patriot Act stemmed from unrelated actions
taken by the Bush administration, especially the prolonged detention
of many immigrants after the Sept. 11 attacks. A lot of it stemmed
from distrust of Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose incendiary
language confirmed suspicions that the government was overreacting.
parts of the law drew intense fire. One was the "sneak-and-peek"
section, which allows law enforcement agents to enter a home to
inspect papers, computers and the like, without informing the
owner in advance. You would never know that the FBI and police
have used such warrants for decades in criminal cases, such as
that of Mafia boss John Gotti.
you know that these warrants are issued only if judges find there
is a good reason to delay notification -- to prevent a suspect
from fleeing, to preserve evidence or to avoid other damage to
searches were a horrible abuse, you'd expect the critics to demand
they be abolished. In fact, the ACLU and its allies only want
to slightly narrow the conditions under which they are allowed.
is the section that lets federal agents obtain library records,
among other things. This is usually portrayed as a naked attempt
at thought control, by exposing Americans to punishment for reading
the wrong books. But no one complained when the FBI investigated
what materials had been checked out of a Montana library by suspected
Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, who was eventually arrested and
the point of the Patriot Act was to allow methods used against
ordinary criminals to be used against foreign terrorists. As it
happens, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said last week that
since the Patriot Act was passed, it has never been used to subpoena
wants to keep this provision in case it's ever needed. And even
the critics are agreeable, though they want to "refine" this section
of the law "by requiring some individualized suspicion," as the
debatable position, but it's also a thoughtful and balanced one
-- taking into account not only the need to protect privacy but
the need to prevent a repetition of Sept. 11. Maybe it's the beginning
of a more sober assessment of a law that federal prosecutors see
as a vital weapon against terrorism.
have been nice if, over the last four years, we could have had
a rational debate about the real Patriot Act and the real problems
it addresses. But better late than never.
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