An unlikely group of patriots
By Paul M. Weyrich
I walked in the room the other day and there were seven television cameras. I looked at the sign-in sheet. There were more than 40 reporters in attendance. We don't often get this kind of attention. The "we" is a new group called Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances. The PRCB now consists of a number of prominent groups on the right and the ACLU. Before you gag, remember the old adage that even a stopped clock is correct twice a day.
I detest much of what the ACLU stands for and detest even more what they do when they intervene in cases. Most of my colleagues on the right feel the same way. So why would we join forces with the ACLU? Because we know of no other way of getting the attention of the media and the Congress to improve the USA Patriot Act. You will recall that Congress rushed through the Patriot Act just a few days after 9/11. Congress didn't know what to do. They wanted the folks back home to think they were doing something constructive. The FBI had a number of bills sitting on the shelf, a few of which actually had been rejected by the House of Representatives. The agency unearthed those bills and newer proposals not yet given to the Congress. Although very few of these bills had anything to do with catching terrorists, the FBI saw an opportunity and took it. In the House, which then had been under GOP control for more than six years, there was a much better bill, which would have authorized the pursuit of terrorists but still protected our civil liberties.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, after 9/11, said if we gave up our way of life in order to catch terrorists the terrorists would have won. He was quite right. But some of Members of Congress were so agitated to want the House and Senate to pass the "better" House bill and send it to the President for his signature. Since the Senate had already acted on another bill, the House bill with its different approach was reluctantly put aside by Majority Leader Dick Armey, who was very suspicious of government power. The best that Armey could do was to sunset some provisions of the bill.
Armey's past action will force the respective Chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Arlen Specter (R-PA), to start from square one with those provisions. To help with that strategy, PRCB leaders of the left and right met to discuss which items in the Patriot Act must be modified. There is concern with some twenty issues. We know, however, if we tackled twenty questions, we would get nothing accomplished and the Patriot Act would undoubtedly end up substantially unchanged. So after considerable discussion we ended up with three issues.
They are as follows: Section 213 (which I handled at the press conference). We, the PRCB, say that Congress should modify Section 213 by imposing strict monitoring on the use of secret warrants. Under the Patriot Act, investigators can secretly enter your home or office (the so-called sneak-and-peek provision), secretly examine your possessions, and not inform you that they have done so for a very long time. In fact, there is no time limit in the bill. Not only is that a problem but warrants that are issued can have no connection with terrorists or terrorism. Much of the Patriot Act has been used for other purposes than preventing terrorism because it circumvents the much stricter requirements of the Constitution. I am against gambling and prostitution as well but we had adequate laws to govern those crimes. Yet the USA Patriot Act all too frequently has been used in regular criminal cases. Secret searches are more like KGB practices than the USA practices. They violate the Fourth Amendment freedoms American count on and are out of line with the Constitution. We don't call for repeal of this section but for Congress to impose strict monitoring policies on the use of secret warrants to ensure that Patriot Act is focused on terrorists
Then there is Section 215. In our view this section needs to be brought in line with the Constitution even though we are not calling for repeal. It allows the federal government to seize information about you—the books you borrow or purchase, other purchases, your medical records - even if no specific fact connects you to a foreign agent. Congress should require probable cause that you are connected with terrorism before such secret searches are allowed. This bill is supposed to be about terrorists and not ordinary law abiding citizens. Allowing the government to collect personal information on medical records, guns, finances and other personal purchases without probable cause is a threat to personal privacy and a violation of American's Fourth Amendment freedoms. We believe Congress should restore the checks and balances we traditionally have had on government power.
Finally, there is Section 802. We want Congress to modify Section 802 by linking a new definition of terrorism to specific crimes such as assassination attempts or kidnapping. Currently the Patriot Act's overly broad definition can be used by federal agents to deploy an array of invasive new authorities which really do not involve terrorism at all. The Act could be used against pro-lifers, or anti-war demonstrators or pro-gun control and anti-gun control demonstrators or anyone who dissents from government policy.
This very modest modification would ensure that the thrust of the Patriot Act is against terrorists and not ordinary Americans.
Yes, we have a number of other troubling provisions of the USA Patriot Act. Individual groups which are part of this Coalition will be contacting the Congress on their own in this regard. But Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, at least until we all can reach a consensus, will stick with educating Congress and the public on those three provisions.
As I mentioned at the press conference my friend, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, was absolutely close-minded on the USA Patriot Act. My colleague Steve Lilienthal and I met with a representative of the Justice Department and someone from the White House. They would consider no change whatsoever. Not even on the question of what defines a terrorist. They wanted the flexibility to define a terrorist as anyone who disagreed with them. I hope new Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is more reasonable on this matter.
In addition to the Free Congress Foundation, the American Conservative Union, American for Tax Reform, Citizens for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and the Association of Physicians and Surgeons are among the groups on the right who are part of this effort. The ACLU says it is recruiting others on the left who agree with our view. I can't wait. Meanwhile, as former Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia has noted, we have an uphill fight to get the attention of the Congress and the media to fight for these changes. Fight we will. Rumsfeld was right. Yet we feel in some ways the enemies of this country have already prevailed. We want to turn that around while we still have the freedom to do so.
Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
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