Let the Sun Set on
the Patriot Act
by John D. Brulé
Can we be both safe and free? Because of the intense pressure by the Bush Administration to expand the USA PATRIOT Act (USAPA), we are forced to examine this question. In the recent past the government designed and built nuclear weapons in an attempt to keep us safe. Thousands of these weapons still exist scattered around the world, and are more dangerous than almost any other manufactured object I can think of.
The USAPA is the equivalent danger to our freedom. The nuclear weapons hide in their silos or on board submarines; the USAPA allows the government to spy on our daily lives while hiding behind enforced secrecy constraints. For example, the USAPA allows the FBI to check on our reading habits in libraries even when we are not suspected of any wrongdoing. Librarians are subject to criminal charges if they tell anyone, including the person being spied upon.
How did we get into this mess? Immediately after 9/11 the Bush Administration presented Congress with the several hundred pages of USAPA, pressuring both the Senate and the House to pass it without change. However, fifteen sections of USAPA that granted federal law enforcement enhanced surveillance powers were set to automatically expire in December, 2005 (known as “sunsetting”), unless Congress acted otherwise. Some of these surveillance powers include using “pen register,” which records all numbers dialed from a particular phone line, and “trap and trace,” which records the originating phone numbers of all incoming calls to a particular phone line. Other provisions allow federal law enforcement to do an end run around the 4th Amendment by going to a secret court with secret judges for secret search orders – even when they have little or no evidence that someone is involved in a crime.
The Bush Administration is not only trying to keep the sections from expiring, but also to “strengthen” the USAPA (don’t be surprised if legislators use the recent bombings in London to insist there is special urgency to “strengthen” the USAPA now). It is expected that many legislative proposals, both pro and con, will be introduced and voting on them is expected to occur in July, 2005.
In mid-June, the House of Representatives voted 238 to 187 to deny funding for the provision which allows the FBI to demand the library or bookstore records of library patrons who are not even suspected of wrongdoing. This was accomplished by the Sanders Amendment to an appropriations bill. Forty Republicans joined Democrats in support of it, even in the face of a veto threat by Bush. Such action is most en-couraging, for it seems to show that there is still some life in Congress. This victory was accomplished in part by a massive telephone calling, emailing and letter-writing campaign across the country. However, our local Representative, James T. Walsh, voted against it. In talking with his staff in Washington, I was informed that his vote was based on some indication that the 9/11 terrorists had used a library connection. I am appalled by the shallow-ness of this rationale. Supporters of USAPA argue that the rules about access to library and bookstore records are a potentially useful tool in finding terrorists, and claim that the House’s vote made libraries safe havens for them. Supporters of eliminating the library and bookstore provision say that the law gives the FBI too much leeway to use this secret court to go on fishing expeditions of people’s reading habits, and that innocent people could get tagged as potential terror-ists based on what they check out from a library. Representative Jerold Nadler (D- NY) suggests a more conventional method of investigating crime: “If the government suspects someone is looking up how to make atom bombs, go to a court and get a search warrant.”
Action Necessary For those of us opposed to the provision on library and bookstore records, now is not the time to relax. Our efforts must continue. While the Sanders Amendment has passed the House, it may not clear the Senate. If some version passes both houses, the resulting Conference Committee could still severely alter its provisions. In the meantime, a number of libraries have be-gun disposing of patrons’ records quickly so they won’t be available if sought under the law. This is not the end of Congressional ac-tion on the USAPA. The Bush Administration will attempt to kill the sunset provision on the fifteen sections set to expire, and we must make sure that the sun does set on those provisions. Locally, the CNY Bill of Rights Defense Campaign (BORDC), a coalition of more than 20 community groups, is working towards that. This is the time to add your voice to the call for debate on these and other provisions of the USAPA. Be ready to respond when Congress moves to expand or reform the Patriot Act!
CNY BORDC–Barrie Gewanter, email@example.com or 471-2821 www.bordc.org or www.aclu.org/safeandfree/ safeandfreemain.cfm
John is the representative of Peace Action of CNY on the BORDC, and is a long-time peace activist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. TO