Ashcroft's anti-terrorism bill--with a few protections for civil liberties--hits House floor.
Thursday, October 11, 2001
When the Bush Administration''s hastily assembled anti-terrorism proposal emerged from the House Judiciary Committee on Oct. 1, it dragged behind it a bombastic and revealing name. The Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, or PATRIOT Act, is a response to requests from Attorney General John Ashcroft for expanded police powers to fight terrorism.
At press time, the bill was set to go to the House floor for a vote on Thursday, Oct. 11, two weeks later than the impatient Ashcroft had hoped it would.
The bill''s name is obviously designed to make it seem like every congressperson''s patriotic duty to unbind the hands of the law in these troubled times. But local civil liberties activists have joined with national groups, both liberal and conservative, in decrying the PATRIOT Act for riding roughshod over individual rights in the name of heightened national security.
Congressman Sam Farr (D-Carmel) had not yet seen the final version of the bill when the Weekly went to press, but he promised to protect the personal freedom of the Central Coast''s citizenry.
"I will not vote for it unless I am convinced that it preserves the essential civil liberties that make our nation unique," he said in a written statement replying to questions from the Weekly.
A handful of provisions in the bill have drawn the majority of the criticism from various groups. Farr mentions several of them by name in his statement.
"It is one thing to say that we ought to streamline the judicial process so that we can conduct wire taps on individuals rather than phone lines," he says. "It is one thing to say that law enforcement officials need to step up monitoring of email and cell phone conversations of a suspected terrorist once they have complied with the proper judicial review.
"It is another thing entirely to streamline the judicial process and minimize judicial review to such an extent that the civil liberties of the average, law-abiding American are compromised."
The bill makes very specific recommendations. Accordingly, civil liberties groups have very specific complaints.
"The two most worrisome areas are the scope of the surveillance opportunities, and provisions for detaining non-citizens," says Michelle Welsh, a volunteer attorney for the Monterey County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It started out that they could detain people indefinitely," Welsh says. "That''s been limited to a seven-day period, during which ''a criminal proceeding or deportation procedure must begin.'' That''s all it says. So if the Attorney General wanted to detain someone longer, he could just begin a proceeding."
The bill says that as long as the Attorney General has "reasonable grounds to believe" the individual is involved in terrorism, he can detain an immigrant even after the seven days.
Paul Johnston, executive director of the Citizenship Project, says undocumented immigrants who work in the Salinas Valley probably won''t be affected by the detentions, which will likely affect immigrants from the Middle East. But Mexicans will pay a price, primarily in the back-burnering of amnesty talks between the U.S. and Mexico and in intensified border patrols.
"It affects them indirectly, first by dashing hopes for new cross-border institutions, which seemed about to become a reality; and second, by providing a basis for a generalized clampdown, especially in the border regions.
"We still will get our workers," Johnston says, "but there will be more bodies in the desert."
Welsh and others are alarmed by the PATRIOT bill''s relaxing of policies restricting surveillance. Ashcroft sought and won power to instate "roving wiretaps," which are not restricted to specific phones, but can be used on any phone a suspect uses.
"How do you do that?" Welsh wonders. Would police agencies be permitted to tap and record conversations on every street-corner pay phone?
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a cyber-liberties group, has taken exception to another section in the PATRIOT bill concerning email records.
Currently, investigators can easily obtain telephone logs that show only the times and destinations of phone calls. The PATRIOT Act would extend that same ease to investigators wishing to request Internet-use logs.
The problem, as EFF sees it, is that being able to identify Web destinations is the equivalent of eavesdropping on telephone conversations--a level of surveillance that requires a harder-to-get search warrant.
What makes activists nervous is that the PATRIOT Act came close to being much more hostile to civil liberties.
In committee, Democrats won important ground by putting a 2003 sunset clause on the expanded wiretap powers, and by setting a limit of seven days on the immigrant-detention clause.
Anyone looking to the Senate for more protection from government intrusion will be disappointed. The Senate''s version of the anti-terrorism bill, dubbed the Uniting and Strengthening America (USA) Act, hews closer to the Bush Administration''s requests.
The USA Act would allow for indefinite detention of immigrants, expand powers to conduct secret searches, and make it easier for investigators to get wiretap permits. It would also require colleges to turn over records of foreign students "suspected" of terrorism.
By all counts, senators with concerns about civil liberties were pressured not to hold up the process, for fear they would be seen as obstructionists. There is no word on when the USA Act will go to the Senate floor.
Activists worry that the climate of fear and peer pressure will exact a frightening toll by silencing dissent.
"Who''s gonna go home to their constituents and say, ''I voted against the PATRIOT Bill'' or ''the USA Bill?''" snorts Welsh. "It''s just one more thing that makes it that much harder to speak out."