An Unpatriotic Act
The New York Times | Editorial
Monday 25 August 2003
Attorney General John Ashcroft has embarked on a charm offensive on behalf of the USA Patriot Act. He is traveling the country to rally support for the law, which many people, both liberals and conservatives, consider a dangerous assault on civil liberties. Mr. Ashcroft's efforts to promote the law are misguided. He should abandon the roadshow and spend more time in Washington working with those who want to reform the law.
When the Patriot Act raced through Congress after Sept. 11, critics warned that it was an unprecedented expansion of the government's right to spy on ordinary Americans. The more people have learned about the law, the greater the calls have been for overhauling it. One section that has produced particular outrage is the authorization of "sneak and peek" searches, in which the government secretly searches people's homes and delays telling them about the search. The House last month voted 309 to 118 for a Republican-sponsored measure to block the use of federal funds for such searches.
Congressional opponents of the act, on both sides of the aisle, are pushing for other changes. A Senate bill, sponsored by Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, addresses many of the law's most troubling aspects. One provision would make it harder for the government to gain access to sensitive data, including medical and library records, and records concerning the purchase or rental of books, music or videos.
Another change would narrow the definition of "terrorism," so the law's expanded enforcement tools could not be used against domestic political protesters, such as environmentalists and anti-abortion activists, with no link to international terrorism. The bill would also require the government to be more specific about the targets of wiretaps obtained under the law, and would restrict the kind of information that could be collected on Internet and e-mail use.
One member of Congress, Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, has charged that Mr. Ashcroft's lobbying campaign, in which United States attorneys have been asked to participate, may violate the law prohibiting members of the executive branch from engaging in grass-roots lobbying for or against Congressional legislation. Legal or not, the campaign seeks to shore up a deeply flawed piece of legislation. The Patriot Act is the Bush administration's attempt to make the country safe on the cheap. Rather than do the hard work of coming up with effective port security and air cargo checks, and other programs targeted at actual threats, the administration has taken aim at civil liberties.
The administration is clearly worried, as opposition to the excesses of the Patriot Act grows across the country and the political spectrum. Instead of spin-doctoring the problem, Mr. Ashcroft should work with the law's critics to develop a law that respects Americans' fundamental rights.
Jump to TO Features for Tuesday 26 August 2003