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July 22, 2005 - Daytona Beach News-Journal (FL)

Editorial: Perpetual Hysteria

USA Patriot Act's Long Shadows

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It's been almost four years since Congress rushed through approval of the USA Patriot Act 45 days after the September 2001 attacks -- time enough to examine the 342-page law soberly and in detail: Has it been used effectively as a tool of anti-terrorism? Does it protect the country's civil liberties? Does the law need to be made permanent? Every question raises doubts. But rather than address such questions with thoroughness enough to let evidence speak louder than fears, Congress is reprising its rubber-stamping role from 2001.

Two House committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee approved renewal of the entire law with only a few cosmetic changes. The full House is voting this week on renewing the law. The Senate will follow soon. With the London bombings causing lawmakers once again to rush more than reason, and President Bush using the headlines as a lobbying tactic ("As we saw in London, the terrorists are still active and they are still plotting to take innocent life," he told a crowd in Baltimore on Thursday), renewal of the Patriot Act is all but certain. But it wasn't the silver bullet the Bush administration portrayed it to be over the last four years, nor will it be so in its present form over the next four, or 10, or however many years Congress is willing to let the Patriot Act's name mask its unAmerican deeds.

Opposition to the act has focused on one particular section -- more than a dozen provisions under Section 215 of the law -- that give law enforcement such police-state powers as warrantless searches, authority to spy on foreigners as well as Americans if even a hint of terrorist activity is suspected, authority to tap phone and Internet connections secretly (at least for a while), authority to sneak into individuals' banking records, bookstore purchases, library borrowing histories and other generally innocuous activities. In spite of the threat of terrorism, those provisions should never have made it into the law. They're overly permissive and their chilling effect on civil liberties is out of proportion with their alleged capability to help prevent further terrorist attacks. They're law enforcement's fishnet, and privacy and freedom are part of the catch.

The provisions under Section 215 were set to expire in December. The House never debated whether those provisions ought to expire, but to what extent they should be made permanent, and possibly made more expansive. The Senate has a companion bill, for example, that gives the FBI more powers to seize individuals' private records without a judge's authorization or the approval of a grand jury. The version of the Patriot Act that made it to the House for a final vote would make the law permanent almost in its entirety.

In addition to Section 215, there are several other onerous sections of the law, such as the government's authority to force disclosure of educational records, to blur the lines between domestic law enforcement and spying, to define "material support for terrorism" so expansively as to potentially make a fiery dissenter's Web page fit the definition of "expert advice" to terrorists, and -- not least -- to severely restrict the dissemination of public information in the name of national security: Information-sharing among law enforcement and public safety agencies is intensified, information-sharing with the public is restricted.

Not surprisingly, the law has been used to go after suspected drug- traffickers, white collar criminals, child pornographers, money launderers unrelated to terrorism and corrupt officials. Its misuses cannot be documented systematically because a measure of secrecy is built into many of its provisions.

The government has yet to produce hard evidence showing the cause-and- effect benefits of the Patriot Act. On this score as in so many issues relating to Bush's various battles, Congress is AWOL.

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