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Patriot Act set to stir fresh worries

Some legal experts and civil rights organisations say they expect increased resistance in Congress when the Patriot Act's most controversial measures come up for renewal next year.

Last Modified: 19 May 2004 07:43 GMT
President George Bush at the signing of the act

Some legal experts and civil rights organisations say they expect increased resistance in Congress when the Patriot Act's most controversial measures come up for renewal next year.

"I think there will undoubtedly be more light shed on the subject this time around and more debate on the subject of civil liberties," said David Cole, a Georgetown law professor and expert on the Patriot Act.

In October 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act. At the time, the American people were still in a state of collective shock and fear triggered by the 11 September attacks.

Some critics of the law, which bestowed federal law enforcement agencies with broad new surveillance powers, argued that the post-9/11 social hysteria had nullified a more rigorous debate over the law's potential threat to civil liberties.

Few members of Congress were willing to risk looking soft on national security during the opening stages of the "war on terrorism".

Expiry date

But several sections of the Patriot Act are set to expire at the end of 2005. These include a measure that gives the government the ability to access confidential files, including medical records and library transactions, with little judicial oversight.

"Not only is it appropriate, but it also is necessary that Congress have the ability to review the record before renewing extensions of government power such as these, which, if abused, can needlessly compromise the freedoms of the American people"

Letter by (D) Senator Patrick Leahy and former (R) Congressman Dick Armey

One measure that does not expire next year is the so-called "sneak and peak" provision whereby law enforcement agencies can raid homes or businesses without informing the owners until much later. However, reports have indicated that some members of Congress may attempt to get the sneak-and-peak measure repealed.

President Bush has urged Congress to make these sorts of statutes permanent, saying they are necessary tools in the ongoing "war against terrorism".

"The terrorists declared war on the United States of America," Bush said during a speech in April.

"And the Congress must give law enforcement all the tools necessary to protect the American people. So I'm starting today to call on the United States Congress to renew the Patriot Act and to make all of its provisions permanent."

Forward planning

In a letter to The Washington Times, Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and former Republican Congressman Dick Armey, said the "sunset provisions" were put in place so that Congress could examine whether the law was being used effectively before making them permanent.

Members of the US Congress

"Not only is it appropriate, but it also is necessary that Congress have the ability to review the record before renewing extensions of government power such as these, which, if abused, can needlessly compromise the freedoms of the American people," Leahy and Armey said.

Some critics of the act, however, said the Department of Justice has not been forthcoming enough about the implementation of the law.

"They won't tell us about it, but there is really no doubt that they have been using it," said Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a civil rights group based in Washington, DC.

Use and abuse

On the other hand, Ibish said it is unclear whether the act has ever been used to target foreign nationals residing in the US, something that alarmed the Arab American and Muslim American communities after the law was passed.

"The critics sometimes exaggerate what the Patriot Act does and
its supporters sometimes unduly minimise what it does"

David Cole,
Georgetown law professor

"That does not mean that it is not frightening and objectionable," he said.

Part of the problem, Cole said, is that many people may have misinterpreted how the act can be used by the government.

"The critics sometimes exaggerate what the Patriot Act does and its supporters sometimes unduly minimise what it does," he said.

Cole said that for some opponents of the Bush administration, the act "has become a symbol for how the administration responded to the war on terrorism and how it has overreacted to the war on terrorism".

Some members of the Arab American community, many who may not feel personally threatened by the law, remain concerned about the act's potential for abuse, Ibish said.

What Ibish describes as a "principled stand" against the act, reflects a broader, philosophical stance against the law, he said.

"The issue is what the relationship between the government and the citizen should be and with the Patriot Act we have changed that relationship," he said.

Reservations

Both Democratic and Republican members of Congress have expressed similar scepticism about the act's far-reaching powers.

"I think people are starting to see that if this thing is going to be extended, it's pretty dangerous. I think people are afraid of having these broad provisions on the books indefinitely"

Democratic staff member,
House Judiciary Committee

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said during a recent hearing that the Patriot Act had been unfairly criticised based upon "misinformation and unjust speculation".

Yet, he made it clear that his committee would closely examine the law’s most controversial measures before endorsing an extension.

"If we need to refine the law we will," Hatch said. "If we need to strengthen the law, we will. If the facts show that we have gone too far, in one area or another, we will make appropriate adjustments."

One Democratic staff member on the House Judiciary Committee said many representatives who voted for the Patriot Act in 2001 had serious reservations about making the law permanent.

"I think people are starting to see that if this thing is going to be extended, it's pretty dangerous," the staff member said. "I think people are afraid of having these broad provisions on the books indefinitely."

Source:
Aljazeera
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