Conservative and liberal groups normally at each other’s throats over the direction of government are finding common cause in wanting to gut major provisions of the government’s premier anti-terrorism law.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform and the Free Congress Foundation are among several groups that formed a coalition – Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances – to lobby Congress to repeal three key provisions of the USA Patriot Act.
Having people from all sides of the political spectrum working together will keep politicians from calling Patriot Act opponents un-American or willing to help terrorists, which happened during the original debate over the law, the groups said.
“We don’t want this argument to be obscured by those who would suggest that anyone who is for more and more government power is somehow on the side of the right, and those who are against it or are skeptical of such grants are on the side of the wrong,” said David Keene of the American Conservative Union. “This is an important question of all Americans on the left, the right or in the middle.”
For liberals, partnering with conservatives will ensure that the GOP-dominated Congress and the Bush administration will have to listen to their concerns, said Laura W. Murphy, outgoing director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office.
“Given the number of people in this room wearing elephant lapel pins, I don’t think it will be easy for the administration to discount our message,” she said at the news conference Tuesday announcing the coalition.
The coalition wants Congress to repeal or let expire prosecutors’ Patriot Act ability to easily obtain records in terrorism-related cases from businesses and other entities, including libraries; the provision that allows “sneak and peek” searches conducted without a property owner’s or resident’s knowledge and with warrants delivered afterward; and what they called an overbroad definition of “terrorists” that could include non-terrorism suspects.
The coalition highlighted the provisions in a letter to the president which also said, “We agree that much of the Patriot Act was necessary to provide law enforcement with the resources they need to defeat terrorism.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the law “contains strong civil liberties safeguards and has a proven track record of being an effective tool in the war on terror.
“Any suggestion of civil liberties violations is an effort to shift the focus of the discussion away from the facts,” Scolinos said. “There have been no verified civil liberties violations filed against the Patriot Act. Period.”
Lawmakers set a 2006 expiration date on many of the wiretapping and surveillance measures, and will begin holding hearings starting in April on whether they should be renewed.
President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have called for renewal of the Patriot Act, the government’s post-Sept. 11, 2001, law that expanded its surveillance and prosecutorial powers against suspected terrorists, their associates and financiers.
Administration officials have said the Patriot Act has kept America safe, but opponents have called the law intrusive and contend that it undermines civil liberties and threatens to let the government snoop into the lives of innocent Americans.
The coalition “is seeking modest changes to only a few extreme sections of the law,” said former GOP Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, the coalition’s chairman. “These changes will secure the important powers of the law while placing reasonable limits on their use.”
And just because the Patriot Act hasn’t been abused yet doesn’t mean it won’t be by government officials in the future, said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
“Many of us remember what happened with RICO,” the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, Norquist said. “It was originally passed and they were going to go after organized crime figures in dark shirts and they ended up using it against pro-life demonstrators years later.”
On the Net:
Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances: https://www.checksbalances.org
Justice Department’s Web site on the USA Patriot Act: https://www.lifeandliberty.gov