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Jewish World Review May 4, 2004 / 13 Iyar, 5764

Nat Hentoff

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The Patriot Act in trouble | President Bush has repeatedly emphasized that Congress must renew Patriot Act key sections, due to expire Dec. 31, 2005, because they are central in fighting terrorism and protecting our liberties. Citing two years of "confusion and misinformation about the Patriot Act, we can't wait until next year," says Deputy Attorney General James Comey. "We need the debate about this now."

In Salt Lake City, where Utah's Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held an April 14 field hearing on the Patriot Act, the debate turned into fiery attacks on the act — mainly by conservatives.

Scott Bradley, of the Utah branch of the conservative advocacy group Eagle Forum, reminded Patriot Act champion Hatch that several weeks after Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden, during a BBC interview, said that "the battle has moved inside America ... freedom and human rights in America are doomed. The U.S. government will lead the American people and the West in general into an unbearable hell and a choking fire."

Bradley said "the United States is stronger and braver than that," but "we must make absolutely certain that the rush for security does not ... destroy what we really cherish about this great nation." He also cited James Madison's 1788 warning:

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."

To further buttress his concerns about the Patriot Act — which many conservative libertarians, in and out of Congress, share — Bradley quoted Thomas Jefferson: "In questions of power, let no more be said of confidence in man (in government office). But bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

Bradley criticized the Patriot Act because it "dramatically expands federal government powers of surveillance, search, and arrest," that set "harmful precedents for future encroachments on personal liberty." And he objected to the act's reduction of the "judicial oversight in the gathering of evidence." But what harm, Hatch asks, has the Patriot Act done?

Bradley answers that "many of the areas which could be abused are kept secret by the provisions of the act."

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Frank Mylar of the Utah Grassroots, a conservative caucus, testified that "of crucial importance among conservatives is not how the Patriot Act powers might be employed by President Bush, but how it could be co-opted to stifle conservative voices in this country under a liberal administration." After all, there is no telling how long this war against this deadly enemy lurking in loose networks around the world is going to last.

An April 16 editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune was directed at Sen. Hatch: "The senator's view ... that the only opposition to the Patriot Act comes from elements of the fringe left and right is palpably untrue. And it betrays an arrogance of power that only emphasizes the need for the public to keep at least as eager a watch on our government as it keeps on us.

"The law (applying not only to foreign terrorists) gives federal agents unprecedented power to search anywhere and to seize 'any tangible things' from any person, based simple on the say-so of an FBI official that the search is the furtherance of an anti-terrorism investigation."

Moreover, The Salt Lake City Tribunal editorial continued: "Under the law, a terrorist is whoever the FBI says it is, and an investigation is whatever the FBI thinks is should be." And in an obbligato shared by many conservative organizations, the editorial emphasized "conservative fears that, under a more left-leaning administration, anti-abortion and gun-rights groups could be so labeled and so investigated."

It's relevant to remember that President Clinton was hardly a civil libertarian. The 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, enthusiastically signed by Clinton, included some of the building blocks for what later became John Ashcroft's Patriot Act.

"Of course," said Frank Mylar, "our Constitution will not be completely discarded and shredded by one law such as the Patriot Act. Instead, it will be the constant chipping away, piece by piece, act by act over time in the name of the public 'good' until we are no longer free people. Certain provisions of the Patriot Act constitute an unacceptable erosion of our unalienable rights that have been recognized in this country before its birth."

The debate about renewing sections of the Patriot Act is certainly needed, and will become much more intensely educational to the citizens at large, despite the president's repeated insistence that it remain intact.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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